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Scottish Parliament Speech: Ferry Services (September 2008)

See this speech in context on They Work For You.

My thanks go to Patrick Harvie and the Transport, Infrastructure and Climate Change Committee for the report on ferry services. My one regret is that reference to European practice is only indirect. Scots ferries can roughly be divided into three types: international, potentially competitive and vital island links. All are currently newsworthy, although not for the best of reasons.

I have been writing the introduction to the Scottish museums' survey of transport. In 700 and more pages and by 40 contributors, much attention is paid throughout to water and sea transport. Water was the great connector: until the 19th century, land tended to be the barrier. However, it must be said that MacBrayne was just as unpopular in the 19th century as it is today, making the pages of Punch in memorably long and tedious jokes.

We must remember that, up to 1914, water was dominant for freight. Even I can remember the River Clyde in the 1950s, bustling with coasters carrying oil, road stone, coal and general sundry traffic. I can also remember the Clyde steamers acting as tenders to the great liners coming in at the tail of the bank. We can still see that in the ports and fjords of Norway - the sea lorry still exists. Here, however, that gave way in the 1960s to the notion that road is best.

Until the 1960s, the bulk of land traffic in Scotland was carried by rail. We have had only just over 40 years of a dominant road system, and its days may be numbered. We have pushed water to the margin in our calculations, and we rarely think that a road can actually damage a local economy. However, the transport studies group in the University of Glasgow surveyed the impact of Scottish motorways, freight traffic and the income from them, and discovered that they had been of major benefit to one area of Britain: the midlands of England. The big logistic bases were down there, from where a lorry could make the trip to Scotland and back. A logistics base in Scotland was not needed.

If we are to plan effectively for the next 30 years, preparing for peak oil, we must consider water transport with a new focus, bearing in mind total economics and the ecology of transport. On that, water transport's record is very good in terms of horsepower for tonnes moved.

In 1996, Professor David Pearce of University College London suggested that we would have to multiply road haulage costs by three times to reach the total cost of road freight transport. As we have unfortunately seen in the case of the Zeebrugge to Rosyth ferry, an extremely powerful and unscrupulous road lobby - particularly at a European level - will exert itself to prevent that.

I could cite the career of my near neighbour in Germany, Willi Betz, right-wing boss of the biggest Speditionsfirma in Europe. Members will probably know his white and blue trucks, with Willi Betz written across the back. However, the drivers are from Bulgaria, the lorries are registered in Azerbaijan, and Mr Betz himself is now serving five years at the pleasure of the German President in Stuttgart jail, having been found guilty of bribery, coercion, false accounting and fraudulent activity. That is not a rotten apple in a barrel; it is a barrel of rotten apples, and we must ensure that our people can compete with those people, whose influence still lies heavily on Brussels.

Internationally, I want to see the reinstatement of the Zeebrugge to Rosyth ferry - I hope in spring next year, as Stewart Stevenson has said - but with careful policing of real competition. On our potentially competitive routes, we should be competitive. We should assess our firths no longer as barriers but as connectors. We should be thinking of the same transits as in Sweden or Norway for the Forth and Clyde. Let us remember that the population of Inverclyde is expected to drop by 20 per cent. That should be considered a disaster that must be prevented.

We could take a bit of an example from Switzerland. Despite not being known for its maritime history, it has an admirable new catamaran service between Friedrichshafen and Konstanz that carries masses of new commuters; a ferry whose charges for crossing Lake Constance are considerably lower than those for the ferry between Gourock and Dunoon; and the paddle steamer Hohentwiel - the Waverley of Switzerland, one might say - doing its runs in summer.

Members should remember that water is available for recreation and the pleasure of the country, as it was in the 19th century, when it opened up the golden road to the isles for none other than David MacBrayne. Perhaps his company could go back to that period and, as we say, think again.

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