Over 100 people gathered on a cold and dark January evening last night to share their views of service and job cuts at Wightlink Ferries.
Members of the audience ranged from transport staff, commuters, occasional ferry passengers as well as the Isle of Wight MP, Andrew Turner and Labour county councillor, Geoff Lumley – the only Isle of Wight councillor attending the meeting.
Solent Ferry Users Group
Julia Bridgeman from the Solent Ferry Users Group spoke about why she felt it was important to challenge the ferry companies. She shared the problems many commuters now face since the Yarmouth route has been reduced from 32 to 16 crossing per day.
She said that other commercial companies have recognised the need to serve all their customers and Wightlink “can’t continue to reduce, reduce, reduce”.
The Group were not there to ‘ferry bash’, she said, but instead to take advantages of all opportunities to enter into dialogue with the ferry companies and challenge the cuts in services and increases in fares.
Support from unions
John Rowse from the Unite union travelled up from South London to speak at the meeting, offering his wholehearted support for any campaign to secure the important links.
He likened (as did many others throughout the meeting) the strip of water between the Island and the mainland to a road, stressing the importance of the links to economy that ferry services provided.
Mick Tosh from the RMT union, a Wightlink member of staff until a few days ago, called for a return to public ownership of the ferry companies, as had been the case prior to privatisation in the 1980s.
Commuters trapped on/off the Island
A variety of views were expressed at the two hour meeting, including stories of commuters having to buy campervans to sleep in on the mainland, as they weren’t able to get on and off the Island late at night or early in the morning any more.
Mainland bus driver, Paul Robinson, who decided to move back to the Island last year, spoke of how he’d had to change from full-time to part-time in order to be able to get to work on time and called for the reinstatement of early morning and late night services.
Bob Blocksidge spoke of the £8m profit Wightlink enjoyed last year and how the ferries used to wait for connecting train passengers to arrive. “It is our road and should remain open”, he said.
Rise in fares a barrier to competing
A resident from Godshill who shows horses off the Island reported the fare for taking her 6m vehicle off the Island to attend shows had increased by £30 per crossing in just two years.
A musician who travels around the world to work, explained he was no longer able to rely on the ferries to get him to the airport for early morning flights and now needed to pay for overnight accommodation when travelling.
Macquarie overpaid for Wightlink
Isle of Wight MP Andrew Turner said the problem was that Macquarie had “paid too much” for Wightlink. He referred to the ferries as a ‘lifeline service’ and said he’d do all he could to challenge the situation. Apparently, Vince Cable, the Secretary of State for Business, had so far refused to meet with Mr Turner to discuss the issue.
He also said that he’d met with Hovertravel and Red Funnel bosses prior to the meeting, who both said (apart from one change at Hovertravel) that their ferry services would remain in tact with no cuts planned.
The appointment of Russell Kew, Chief Executive of Wightlink, as business representative on the Solent LEP was questioned, as were the arrangements for Wightlink’s repayment of loans – more on that later.
Boycotts and fixed link raised
Rob Donaldson from Yarmouth suggested the public speak with their feet and boycott all Wightlink services.
This suggestion was repeated by others during the course of the meeting, with general support from the audience.
A fixed link was also raised by several members of the public during the course of the meeting, but further discussion on this was discouraged in an attempt to keep the discussion focused on ferry services.
The majority of the room voted in favour of the campaign being taken forward.