Dear Ms. Hamilton Brown,
21 January 2023
Thank you for your recent correspondence regarding the Island’s cross-Solent ferry services and the Wightlink Users Group. As a regular ferry user myself, I understand your frustrations. The Island is dependent on these services and affordable and reliable ferries should be a right, not a luxury.
I believe we need Minimum Service Levels to protect essential transport from disruption during strikes. The Isle of Wight ferry services need to be part of this. I have discussed minimum service levels during strikes with Department for Transport Minister Kevin Foster. I am making submissions to the upcoming Transport Strikes Bill to ensure that Island ferries will be required to have minimum service levels during strikes.
I have spoken in Parliament regarding the protection of ferry services in the event of strike action:
BOB SEELY CALLS ON GOVERNMENT TO PROTECT LIFELINE FERRY SERVICES DURING STRIKES | Bob Seely MP
I have previously met with Minsters from the Department for Transport and discussed ways of improving the Island’s cross-Solent transport services. I have asked the Government to consider a number of measures to improve the Island’s Ferry services. I have put in additional submissions to the Transport Bill to request the Government give itself more power to oversee ferry timetables and also to be involved in the event of future sales of ferry companies.
I have also asked whether Government will support the Isle of Wight Council or the Department for Transport in acquiring a share in Wightlink and whether the Government will look at capping costs on those travelling to the mainland for health-related travel.
I am aware of previous practices which are still impacting on Islanders in terms of the costs paid for ferry travel. There have, quite rightly, been questions raised about the ferry firms making a profit on Islanders that are dependent on the services they provide. There are three elements of ticket pricing – fuel costs, debt, and personnel deals which have had union input. Thankfully, the latter of these is changing. However, the buying and selling of Wightlink over the past 25 years has represented the unacceptable face of capitalism, as well as questionable union practises and, in the past, weak management.
The current owners of both Wightlink and Red Funnel are better than previous ones and appear to want to invest to build the business over time rather than load with debt and sell on. They are taking a longer-term view, rather than the flip-and-sell model of private equity.
I do not criticise the current management or staff teams, both of which are made up of folks who understand their wider social responsibilities to the Island. They do their best. The problem has been with the companies owning both Wightlink and Red Funnel who have arguably not seen them as public service lifelines but as opportunities to load debt and pay dividends whilst paying as little tax as possible.
I am aware that there have been failings recently. However, overall reliability has improved and there has been investment in new services and vessels. I sometimes hear romanticised stories of British Rail and Sealink, but services in the 1980s and 1990s weren’t great, and reliability now is above 95 percent. I am aware of concerns raised regarding timetabling arrangements, specifically on the Lymington – Yarmouth route and Wightlink FastCat. I continue to raise concerns with Wightlink on a regular basis. If Red Funnel Isle of Wight Ferry can run late evening passenger services from Southampton to West Cowes, why can’t Wightlink do the same from Portsmouth to Ryde Pier Head? I have put this question to Wightlink and continue to press for later services.
I have raised concerns regarding transport integration and am keen to see more ‘joined-up’ thinking between the train companies and ferry companies. I am aware that Islanders have raised concerns with the railway links with missed connections having a huge impact. I have written to stakeholders regarding the integration of services, with specific reference to the West Wight route and Lymington Pier, and Wightlink FastCat services and South Western Railway connections.
I continue to work with the Isle of Wight Council to improve passenger connections across the Island. This includes reducing the gap in active transport connectivity between the East and West of the Island through a bid for an Island Green Link. Clearly, reducing these timetable barriers for rail passengers at Yarmouth and Ryde will play an important role in the Island’s broader goal of encouraging more sustainable journeys across the Island and the Solent, as well as boosting sustainable tourism and active travel journeys in general.
I am also keen to see what options are available in terms of funding arrangements to support Islanders who need to go to the mainland for medical treatment, in line with the principles of the NHS and similar to that which the residents of the Isles of Scilly benefit from. I have also raised the idea of the introduction of a small tax for journeys starting on the mainland to support Island environment projects and am working with the Isle of Wight Council to see how this idea could work. I am also keen to encourage a third car ferry operator to enter the market in order to provide genuine competition.
I do not have the power to bring about these changes on my own. The transport authority locally is the Council. I am keen to work closely with the Council, regardless of political colour, to bring about changes for the good of Islanders. I am optimistic that Council personnel share this view.
I would be happy to forward your correspondence to Wightlink on your behalf – I would be grateful if you could confirm your wishes with regard to this.