Wightlink totally committed to Isle of Wight says boss

I write in response to IW MP Bob Seely, who was in turn responding to Shanklin resident Karl Hunter (CP, 19-06-21 and CP, 28-05-21).

Image – Isle of Wight County Press

The pandemic has left scars across our community.

While coronavirus infection rates have not been high on the Isle of Wight, some of us have lost loved ones and some have caught the disease themselves and may still be suffering from long Covid.

My heart goes out to everyone personally affected at this difficult time.

It has been a challenging 18 months for all of us.

I welcome this opportunity to shed some light on what’s been happening at Wightlink and to respond to some of the points raised by Mr Hunter and Mr Seely.

I thank our MP for recognising that we in the Island’s transport sector are doing our best to support the Island. Throughout the crisis, Wightlink has worked in step with the Isle of Wight Transport Infrastructure Board and the other ferry operators to make sure vital cross-Solent links were maintained, when they were not financially viable.

This began long before any Government support was available because all of us were totally committed to ensuring essential supplies kept arriving, come what may. We saw it as our mission to keep supermarket shelves full, the NHS supplied and key workers moving. We are proud that we achieved that for the Island.

As Mr Seely has explained, our FastCats were excluded from Government support because there were two competing foot passenger services between Portsmouth and Ryde.

As fewer than 10 per cent of passengers in normal times were on board, the government chose not to support both services. While we were disappointed with the decision, we understood the government’s need to spend taxpayers’ money carefully – so one service, not two.

Even now, foot passenger numbers are still only around 50 per cent of normal as fewer commuters are travelling.

“For this reason, Wightlink’s Fast Cat service will remain hourly until demand increases significantly.”

However, Mr Seely’s comments about Wightlink ownership need correcting. When our current owners purchased Wightlink in 2015, rather than ‘loading the company with debt’ they actually reduced debt by 50% and also committed to a £45million investment in a new flagship and major improvements to our ports at Fishbourne and Gunwharf.

Despite seeing our revenues decimated by the effects of Covid-19, our shareholders have fully supported us in investing over £5million in annual maintenance for all eight of our vessels.

This was to ensure they were all ready for the recovery, whenever it came, although very little revenue was coming in at the time. Government support, while very welcome, was not as generous as some reports have implied.

Unlike most of the travel sector, Wightlink has not made a single compulsory redundancy among our workforce. Instead, we have come up with solutions to manage the financial crisis, by working with our trade unions and with the full support of our shareholders and banks.

The comparison of Wightlink profits with rail franchisees is wrong. I know, as I previously ran a private rail operator. Rail franchise holders normally do not own their trains and the track is owned and maintained for them by Network Rail at taxpayers’ expense. Wightlink actually owns all of its ships and most of its ports and no-one else provides funding for maintenance or replacement – certainly not the taxpayer.

Profits are needed to fund capital expenditure on new ferries and infrastructure so it’s hardly surprising that Wightlink needs higher profits than other businesses who do not own and maintain expensive assets such as ships and ports.

The notion that public ownership somehow magically gets rid of financing costs and would reduce fares is also wrong, unless it also includes substantial ongoing taxpayer funding as is the case for the ferries in Scotland.

Ferries are expensive to buy and operate, whoever owns them, and that includes the cost of financing which doesn’t disappear in public ownership – the taxpayer picks it up.

We all help pay for the Scottish ferries through our taxes but at present cross-Solent ferries are paid for entirely by the people who use them.

This is a matter for politicians, not something we as a privately owned ferry operator can change. There are also some well-known downsides to public ownership such as new vessels going way over budget and being delivered very late or not at all.

Wightlink has a modern fleet of ships and catamarans and a good track record of replacing them on time and reducing our carbon emissions at the same time.

On price, we have made sure that Islanders can get year-round fixed price fares through our popular Multilink product. It offers one-way fares for cars for less than £30, and we reserve 15-30% of vehicle space on board for Islanders using Multilink.

Yes, peak fares without Multilink are significantly higher, but if that were not the case then off-peak and Multilink fares would need to go up.

Foot passenger Multilink tickets are £7 per crossing or less with no restrictions on travel date and bicycles go free. We think this compares well with bus and train fares and our competitor ferry operators.

Everyone would love to have unlimited and frequent ferry services for very low prices but the reality is that ferries and ports need to be paid for.

Without taxpayer subsidy, the full cost of ferry services is borne by our customers through ticket prices. We are doing the best we can to ensure that Islanders have the option of lower fares with Multilink.

The Isle of Wight Council runs a scheme to support people on benefits to gain Multilink prices without advance purchasing.

We also have a raft of discounts available for special groups, including NHS patients, and we support the Island’s sports teams and arts groups with heavily subsidised travel through our sponsorship scheme.

Finally, I would like to assure Mr Seely, Mr Hunter and readers of the County Press that Wightlink is committed to the Isle of Wight 100% and is looking forward to a good summer for all of us.

I am very happy to continue this conversation with our MP and the new administration at the Isle of Wight Council.

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

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