Fast forward? A ferries option that would halve journey times

“Vessels currently employed on Upper Clyde routes can be described as elderly, and the entire fleet appears to be in need of replacement with modern vessels.”

The views of politicians or ferry user groups in Dunoon, Kilcreggan or Gourock, fed up with the Ali Cat, Argyll Flier or Island Princess in 2013?

A long awaited feasibility study from the Scottish Government?

No – an assessment produced for Highlands & Islands Enterprise and Scottish Enterprise by Napier University, all of 13 years ago.

The aim was to explore options for high speed passenger ferries, with a service speed above 24 knots.

Back then, traffic on the Dunoon-Gourock and Wemyss Bay-Rothesay routes was said to have been static for a decade, with the academics arguing : “Only service enhancements will generate further growth on these routes, and the economic and social benefits that will flow from this.”

They estimated that in 1998 there were nearly 900,000 foot passenger trips annually on those two routes, plus Gourock-Kilcreggan-Helensburgh.

Three high speed boats were suggested, with one going between Gourock and Dunoon, the second between Gourock and Rothesay and the third in reserve (available for summer cruising and occasional peak periods); Kilcreggan and Helensburgh would be served by ‘marginal ship time’.

The journey times would have been slashed, with trips from Gourock to Dunoon taking 10 minutes, Rothesay 25 minutes and Kilcreggan just five minutes. A sailing from Kilcreggan to Helensburgh would have taken ten minutes.

As the report points out, faster vessels would mean current schedules could be maintained with fewer boats and faster journeys.

Expensive? Boats capable of 28 knots could have cut subsidy levels, the report claims, even based on zero growth in passenger numbers.

The vehicle route to Dunoon town centre, cut in 2011 by the Scottish Government amid huge controversy, would have gone though, leaving Western Ferries as the only car ferry to Cowal.

Piers ‘would be expected to offer good quality facilities’ – pontoons, covered walkways, parking areas, ticket offices or machines and an information screen. And the report warns:

“A fundamental change from outdated conventional ferry to high speed ferry operation will inevitably result in some redundancies.

“Deloitte & Touche estimated that moving to a ship operation with four-man crews on the Gourock-Dunoon route… would result in redundancy costs in the region of £0.5m.

“This is obviously a serious and worrying matter for those concerned… nevertheless this would represent a once and for all cost far less than the long term costs associated with continuing to provide outmoded services.”

The government of the day seems to have done a pretty good job of kicking this report into the long grass – similarly the feasibility study into  pontoons in Dunoon, Gourock and Kilcreggan, paid for the public and dated June 2012, has still not been published and was only made public on this website after a long battle via Freedom of Information legislation.

But the high speed ferries project was – and may still be – a chance to make a real, long term difference for several communities on the Clyde.

Will the Holyrood feasibility study produce anything as ambitious, or as ‘joined-up’? Sadly it seems very unlikely.

A copy of the High Speed ferries report is here (19 megabyte file):



  1. The report has some interesting suggestions to make. The concern about redundancy is no longer a problem as it referred to the streakers; the Argyll Ferries service has the same crew levels as the proposals. Besides finding the capital to buy or lease suitable vessels, the biggest stumbling block to overcome is Clydeport’s speed limit of 12 knots. I have concerns about the suitability of the vessels identified given the operational problems encountered by Argyll Ferries, although appropriate vessel choice and docking arrangements could make it a viable all-weather service; the need for resistance to wave and weather-related cancellation suggests a SWATH or wave piercing design, combined with pontoons suitably protected by breakwaters.

  2. I think you would find Argyll Flyer would handle much better if she was allowed to operate at her designed speed. As you say Clydeport’s speed restriction is the problem.

    • I’ve mentioned it before but it bears repetition; the speed limit was set by the Clyde Navigation Trust back when the Clyde was like Argyll Street on a saturday. The Clyde today has very little traffic, and there is the precedent of the Thames Clippers being given permission to run at up to 30 knots on some sections of what is a narrow, winding and much busier waterway which has the additional challenge of fast tidal flows and numerous areas of restricted visibility around bridges and dock entrances. The Clyde between Dunoon, Kilcreggan and Gourock presents none of these safety hazards; the issues of wash disturbing small craft moorings and the visibilty restriction on approach to Kempock Point can be dealt with through appropriate choice of vessel, setting the route away from the shore and standing off Kempock Point when arriving and departing.

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