Better Isle of Wight ferry services should be for life

WightLink FastCat
After a considerable amount of public pressure, Isle of Wight ferry company Wightlink is going to bring back later Fastcat sailings.

image – Isle of Wight County Press

By Karl Hunter, Shanklin:

Not permanently, but instead, a total of two extra sailings from Portsmouth over six evenings in the run-up to Christmas using a slower charter ferry. 

Following this, Keith Greenfield, the CEO of Wightlink will decide if it will be in their interest to continue. 

“If these sailings prove popular with customers, we will consider later sailings at other times of the year on this route.”

No doubt he will also decide what constitutes popularity and then arbitrarily serve his judgement determining if the service will remain in place. 

Of course, no methodology can be applied that will give a conclusive result to determine viability from a few evenings of extra services.

For a start, people change their habits over longer periods of time. But that’s not the point. 

Regardless of Mr Greenfield’s baseless conclusion, we should have a minimum level of service available to Islanders when they need it. 

Somehow, unlike the bus and train operators, Wightlink escaped a contractual minimum service level obligation. 

I could go on to argue the reasons why the Isle of Wight needs a minimum service level from our ferry operators, but that has been expressed many times over at length by Islanders, councillors and our MP, Bob Seely, who has had to resort to bringing the matter before parliament and the Department of Transport asking that the government oversee ferry timetables directly. 

Mr Greenfield’s approach to our fight for adequate ferry crossings has been to consistently resist increasing the FastCat service while remarkably at the same time saying he wants it. 

Greenfield quotes from recent weeks include: “it is not practical to bring back later sailings at the moment.”…

“Everyone wants to see more FastCats and later ones, no one more than me.” 

READ MORE: Isle of Wight passenger ferry timetable explained by Wightlink

The reality is Mr Greenfield doesn’t want to see more FastCat services unless it is making more profit or in his own words “when it’s viable”. 

I can tell you according to Wightlink’s accounts it is viable now. It’s viable now and it’s been viable for many years. 

I know this because I have studied and reviewed Wightlink’s accounts going back four years. 

I published my findings in a letter to the County Press last year (CP online, 10-07-21), showing Wightlink made an average profit after capital expenses and taxes of more than £283,000 every week over the four years I reviewed. 

But don’t take my word for it, Wightlink’s accounts are published on the Companies House website. 

There you will see 85 per cent of Wightlink’s profits were paid as dividends, you can also see the millions that are paid in bonuses to Wightlink’s company directors, although that is somewhat harder to find.

In Mr Greenfield’s statement regarding an explanation of the current demise of the passenger ferry timetable (CP, 26-10-22), he has the gall to state that unlike the rail industry, Wightlink is not subsidised by the taxpayer. 

There is a reason for that. Wightlink’s generous profits don’t qualify them for taxpayer funding. 

However, let’s not forget the one off £6.5 million subsidy the ferry companies received in the last financial year from where? You guessed it, the taxpayer. 

I’m still not sure how you get away with paying your profits away as dividends and bonuses and then claiming possible bankruptcy if you don’t receive public money? 

I’m not joking, I would really like to know the answer to that. It strikes me as worthy of further investigation. 

Mr Greenfield then goes on to flout another insult with the cheek to put it to us that to have later FastCat services it would have to come at the cost of removing earlier commuter ferries or sanctioning another two-hour service gap in the afternoon. 

We might as well start rowing across, it would be faster. 

READ MORE: Eight holes in Wightlink’s response over late night FastCats

These are unnecessary and ridiculous statements. The books clearly show Wightlink makes more than enough profit and a relatively small percentage of which could be used to provide more frequent and later FastCat services without the need to make further reductions elsewhere.

As it stands we know there is a need, we know the accounts prove Wightlink can afford to bring back later FastCat crossings and apparently we now know no one wants later FastCats more than Mr Greenfield himself. Then do it. 

Islanders want it, the council wants it, our MP wants it, the Department of Transport wants it and even Mr Greenfield wants it. 

However, the final thing we know is Wightlink won’t do it. 

History tells us Wightlink will continue to put their interests above anyone else. Wightlink appears to be driven by greed. 

I struggle to arrive at another conclusion, given they won’t spare a small percentage of the profit to do the decent thing and provide the service the Isle of Wight deserves and will benefit from. 

Wightlink will likely retort that they have award-winning toilets and have revamped the waiting room in Portsmouth for £1.5 million. 

That money would have been much better spent on providing later FastCat crossings. 

The old waiting room was fine, and so was the one before that and the one before that. 

Stop revamping the waiting room and prioritise the service first. That’s the whole point of our ferry companies, to get the public from A to B, but not just at times when it suits them.

The sad reality is eventually the Department of Transport will force Wightlink to do the right thing and improve their service as part of the continuous connection from London through to Shanklin. 

This will likely come in the form of a legal contractual obligation to provide a minimum service level in line with other public transport providers. 

READ MORE: Isle of Wight ferries should have minimum service contract

However, that will take a few years of continual pressure and lobbying the government. 

n the meantime, we can count on the path of greed to go on as Wightlink continues to make millions in profit that will continue to be stripped from the company and used to pay bonuses and dividends. 

They will fight to the bitter end as they have always done, letting the Isle of Wight down in the process. 

However, it’s great to see Islanders come together and fight for a better service as this also supports the argument for the government to impose a permanent minimum level of service from our ferry providers. 

After all, it’s important to remember that better ferry services should be for life and not just for Christmas.

IWCP Editor’s note: Mr Hunter commuted for 18 years and still uses the Wightlink service regularly to visit family and friends in London.

This letter was originally published in the Isle of Wight County Press.

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