Saturday, March 26, 2011

Troon to Campbeltown ferry

A new passenger ferry from Troon to Campbeltown begins on 1st April.

It's being operated by new-start Kintyre Express, a subsidiary of West Coast Motors, the locally owned Campbeltown bus company which already operates the Scottish Citylink coaches to Kintyre from Glasgow (whether as franchisee or sub-contractor I'm not sure).

The boat to be used is an 11 metre Redbay Stormforce RIB (rigid inflatable boat) with accommodation for just 12 passengers. Centrally heated but lifejackets to be worn at all times:-

The passage time is 1h 15m and combined with a 40 minute train ride from Glasgow to Troon, KE are claiming Glasgow to Campbeltown in less than 2 hours. That compares favourably with the 4h 25m on the coach except the "less than 2 hours" claim is a little disingenuous in that the train gets in to Troon 20 minutes before the ferry departs so it's really 2h 15m (and the train connecting with the Sunday morning sailing is an hour so that's 2h 35m)

How do the prices compare? Well it's £17 to Campbeltown from Glasgow on the bus but £50 on the Kintyre Express boat. Add £6.50 for the train and, as it's more than a mile from Troon Station to the harbour, lets call that £60 from GLA to CTN including the cab fare.

So the Kintyre Express is the equivalent of going on the Heathrow Express from Paddington (15-20 minutes - £16.50) as opposed to going to the airport on the Tube (about an hour - £5.00). But to my mind, these premium services only justify their fares if, as well as a much quicker journey time, they also have a "turn up and go" frequency. The Heathrow Express is every 15 minutes from about 05.00 to 23.30 seven days a week but the Kintyre Express only operates on Monday, Wednesday and Sunday with two departures on these days, one in the morning and one in the afternoon. Compare the WCM/Citylink coach with three departures, seven days a week.

But even if KE's restricted timetable does happen to suit you, a sailing "may" be cancelled if there are fewer than four passengers booked. I hate to be the harbinger of doom but I can't really see this taking off as a credible addition to the public transport network. I suspect it will degenerate into "bookable by parties of 3+ and, if you want to book, these are times we go at."

KE are also starting a Campbeltown to Ballycastle (Northern Ireland) service on 27 May with the same type of boat. This has a slightly more reasonable timetable of two departures a day, Friday to Monday. These are not subject to cancellation for lack of demand and the price is £30 single - compare that with £26 single on Stenaline between Belfast and Stranraer and this seems a bit more credible as an alternative tourist link between NI and Scotland. I wish it good fortune but it's only fair to say that previous fast passenger ferry services in Scotland have met with little success. 

Western Ferries (the company that now operates the very successful McInroy's Point to Hunter's Quay car ferry across the Clyde) experimented with a catamaran called the Highland Seabird between Oban and Fort William and Moville in Donegal in the mid 70s but it only lasted two summers, 1977 and 78, as I recall. I went on it between Oban and FW once - great fun but I think my father and I were the only passengers aboard.

And more recently, a RIB service began between Tayvallich (on the mainland coast of Argyll) and the island of Jura in 2008 on a three year trial basis. This was with subsidy from Argyll & Bute Council but it's not yet been decided whether this will be continuing in 2011. See this link and this one for more info on the Jura ferry. It's my understanding KE are not receiving any subsidy for either of their services.

So, I say again, I wish KE all the best. If I had the opportunity, I'd make a point of using them but experience suggests that perhaps not enough people think like I do. But I hope I'm proved wrong. Let's see.

Photo credit Kintyre Express

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Mallaig - a tale of two ferries

Periodically, I go to Flickr and enter "Mallaig" in the search box, recent entries first, to see what new comes up. Yesterday I was rewarded with this postcard

Picture credit Blackislebennet
My interest in old postcards is due to the fact they're a great source of images of the past and my interest in Calmac ferries stemmed partly from a desire to be able to date a photo from the evidence of any ship appearing in it.

This postcard is a case in point and the coincidence of the two ferries you can see berthed at Mallaig allows this photo to be dated quite precisely to between 6 May and 18 July 1979.

The reason is that the ship on the right is the MV Pioneer. Entering service in 1974 between West Loch Tarbert and Port Ellen on Islay as a stern loading car ferry, she was altered in 1979 by being equipped with a vehicle loading hoist to enable her to take up the Mallaig to Armadale service. This is because there were no linkspans (ramps adjustable to the level of the tide) at Mallaig or Armadale in the 70s to allow vehicles to drive on by the ramp at the stern of the ship. Hence she had to have the hoist added - this is basically a sort of "dumb waiter" to move vehicles between the level of the pier and the ship's car deck. You can see the hoist on the Pioneer in this picture and the seasonal Mallaig-Armadale service opened on 6 May in 1979 so that fixes the earliest date.

The Pioneer arriving at Mallaig in 1988 - the hoist is clearly visible immediately aft of the red and black funnel
The ship on the left in the postcard at the top is the MV Arran. Entering service between Gourock and Dunoon in 1954, she was the first ever car ferry on the west coast of Scotland (except for the ferry from Stranraer to Larne and estuarial short crossings like the Corran and Erskine ferries etc.). The Arran started life as a hoist loading ferry but was altered in 1970 to have her hoist removed and be converted to a stern-loader - this was the "Pioneer treatment" in reverse. The picture below shows how the Arran (left) was altered compared with her identical sister ship, the MV Cowal (right), which remained in her original hoist loading configuration.

Picture credit mona's isle
By the late 70s, the advent of newer ferries had relegated the Arran to spare/relief ferry in the Calmac fleet and in early 1979 she was deputising on the run from Mallaig to the Small Isles. (The previous incumbent of that route, the Loch Arkaig, had sunk alongside the pier at Mallaig in March 1979 and the new ship to the Small Isles, the Lochmor, entered service in July.) The Arran gave her last sailing for Calmac on 18 July 1979 so that fixes the last possible date for the postcard.

All of which is a lot of rather useless knowledge devoted to a rather pointless end! Although in my defence, it enables me to search out smashing archive pics such as the one I leave you with below of the Arran at Port Askaig on Islay (before she had been converted from hoist loading)

Picture credit beaches

That picture can be dated to between 1 August 1969 (entry into service of the red ship on the right, Western Ferries' MV Sound of Jura) and 30 December 1972 (withdrawal of the Arran for conversion to stern loading). See what I mean? Don't get me started, I can't help myself anymore ...!   

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Cruising from Ayr, Troon and Ardrossan

That's the cover of a fold out brochure I bought off eBay recently for 99p.

The fact that 1964 was the last year the splendidly named Caledonian Steam Packet Company (CSP) offered a programme of cruises from Ayr, Troon and Ardrossan is just the start of the history involved here.

For a start, the CSP was the shipping subsidiary operating on the Clyde of the nationalised British Railways. Due to a quirk of history, it managed to retain its identity and livery of yellow funnel embossed with red lion when the identities of the other pre-nationalisation railway shipping subsidiaries to Ireland and across the Channel were suppressed and BR imposed their standard red funnel with their "double arrow" logo. The CSP also became the "Caledonian" which gave its name to Caledonian MacBrayne (Calmac) when, divorced from railway control, it merged with David MacBrayne in 1973.

The ships pictured on the brochure next to the Cloch Lighthouse just south of Gourock on the east bank of the Clyde are, in the foreground, the SS Queen Mary II (1933). She ended up being the last dedicated cruising steamer in the CSP/Calmac fleet in 1977 and until very recently she was a floating restaurant on the Thames. The vessel in the background is one of the three "ABC" (because they were called Arran, Bute and Cowal) class of car ferries which operated to Dunoon and Rothesay from 1954. These were the first car ferries in Scotland (apart from the short crossings like Queensferry etc, now replaced by bridges).

The map on the back of the brochure - Ayr and Troon off the bottom!

The ship stationed at Ayr to give the cruise programme advertised in the brochure was the paddle steamer Caledonia built in 1934. During the summer of 1964, she sailed from Ayr every day at around 10.00am and called at Troon and Ardrossan before sailing to a variety of destinations around the Firth of Clyde including Largs, Rothesay, Loch Riddon, Millport, Dunoon, Loch Goil, Arran, Campbeltown, Tighnabraich and the Kyles of Bute.

The Caledonia was withdrawn from service in 1969 - she too later spent time on the Thames as a floating restaurant before being destroyed by fire in 1980. Calmac finally ceased all cruise sailings - since 1977 operated by diesel car ferries in their "spare time" - in 1996. (I think that was the year because I went on a sail on either the Jupiter, Juno or Saturn from Rothesay to Tarbert in 96 and I don't think there were cruise sailings in later years but correct me if I'm wrong.)

Finally, note that the brochure (top picture) has a date stamp 2 Sep 1964 saying "Caledonia". I think that means the brochure was picked up on the ship and stamped with the ship's own stamp kept on board in her ticket office. So that gives it a bit of extra "provenance" as they say on the Antiques Roadshow!

I leave you with two pictures of the Caledonia in her heyday in the 60s

Picture credit Mona's Isle
Picture credit Phil Wilson