Will Isle of Wight MP take up my concerns over Wightlink?

WightLink FastCat
An open letter originally published in the Isle of Wight County Press.

image – Isle of Wight County Press

By Karl Hunter, Shanklin

Dear Mr Seely,

I have been a commuter on the Wightlink FastCat for over 17 years.

In that time I have seen the multilink tickets well exceed inflation and nearly triple in price and despite the odd slightly later ferry at the weekend I have felt the effects and inconvenience of a significant reduction in the timetabled service.

The winter timetable has even less services and there is only one FastCat in operation for four weeks of the year due to the servicing of the other.

Even so, I have never felt so disillusioned with Wightlink to the point I had to stand up and say something, until now.

It was widely reported that Wightlink’s second full suspension of the FastCat service from last November was by Wightlink’s own admission simply because they were not making enough money.

This was on account of the reduction in passenger numbers as a result of the pandemic.

However, I can’t help feeling a little confused given Wightlink’s operating profits as a whole are substantial year after year. (Wightlink has three separate companies registered with Companies House).

Regardless, the Ryde to Portsmouth fast ferry is one of our essential connections to the mainland and despite the coronavirus there were still Islanders who needed this connection, like me, my Island-based colleagues and my mother, who for a time supported an elderly relative.

The service did resume for a brief period before Christmas, however, it was unworkable and meaningless to so many given that it was run from 8am to 4pm, outside of commuter times.

The fall-out of all this was time and again, I found myself on a packed car ferry struggling to find a seat that permits social distancing on a return journey that takes twice as long.

I would argue the stance of the leadership within the IW Council is a stance that is not serving Islanders as best they potentially could.

On the matter of Wightlink suspending the FastCat, I read comments from the then leader, expressing disappointment, but understanding and was grateful just to have Wightlink operate some ferry services.

I ask myself how will Islanders get the ferry links we need with this approach from our leadership?

In the end, as you are aware, government intervention was needed and the Treasury delivered with a grant of £6.5 million with the purpose of ensuring our transport links were maintained. This was announced in January 2021 on the government’s website:

“Vital ferry links between the IW and the mainland have been safeguarded with an additional £6.5 million of government support to ensure they can continue to run through the crisis, the Chief Secretary announced today, January 15.”

At the same time The Chief Secretary to the Treasury, Steve Barclay, said:

“These ferry services are essential to everyday life on the IW, and this further package of funding will help ensure residents can continue to access healthcare and essential goods and services.”

Given the Treasury’s cash injection, I would certainly like an answer as to why the FastCat was not safeguarded and its suspension continued until May?

Our connections to the mainland, despite how often or how little we use them, are essential when we need them.

Islanders must be able to rely on fast ferry links as we never know when that urgent reason might arise and it becomes crucial to get to the mainland quickly. Put simply, the Ryde to Portsmouth foot passenger crossing at speed (as opposed to a slow car ferry) is nothing short of a public service.

Indeed, this route before privatisation was a public service owned by the Government and operated by Sealink (then part of British Rail).

Now the service is owned by a provider who appears to place profit margins before public service, in that some profit is not enough profit.

And yes, I hear that allegedly the FastCat doesn’t make money, but Wightlink does and they took on this route with the profit-making car ferry routes.

My overall concern here is that a private company has time and again demonstrated they can control, restrict and even stop our Island’s travel links whenever they please or feel they are not making enough money and there is little anyone can do to stop them.

For me, the questions that then arise are:

1. Do Wightlink have too much control over our ability to commute to Portsmouth? and therefore,

2. Does Wightlink have too much control over our society and lives?

If these questions are justified, I think the civic powers that once granted Wightlink the privilege of taking over the service might benefit from setting up a working group represented by the council, the public and the ferry companies to hold the ferry operators to account.

Such a body might perhaps have some sway in preventing services being reduced even further and from a commuter’s point of view free us from what feels like being held to ransom.

However, with the best will, the hovercraft is affected by the wind, sea state and later start times (apparently I hear due to the engine noise disturbing local residents early in the morning, I appreciate I could be wrong about that).

Also there were limited numbers allowed on board on account of the pandemic, which sometimes results in long queues outside the terminal building.

Ultimately, I don’t know what the answer is, but I know what the problem is; a diminishing service with ever increasing prices and the autocratic control Wightlink has over our connection to the mainland.

I have never wanted a fixed link. In fact I was vehemently against the idea.

However, as each year passes, I see the appeal more and more, not because I want a link, but because of Wightlink’s continued failings to provide a frequent, reasonably priced quick link that meets my needs and Islanders’ alike.

Mr Seely, given the importance of our transport links, can I ask as our Member of Parliament what steps you can take to help ensure Islanders start to see an improvement in services and stop the continued demise I have witnessed over the years?

If you share the same rhetoric as the council and the answer is Wightlink is a private company and so public intervention is limited, can we go beyond this response and move forward by perhaps looking at another provider for the Ryde Pier to Portsmouth route with contractual obligations to deliver a better service?

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