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Last Updated: Tuesday, 10 January 2006, 14:51 GMT
No bidders for ferry link route
Ballycastle to Campbeltown ferry operated from 1997-99
The service ended in failure in the late 1990s
Hopes for the revival of a ferry route between Argyll and Northern Ireland have been dashed after it failed to attract any potential operators.

The tendering period closed on Tuesday but no bidders came forward, despite the offer of a 1m annual subsidy.

Transport Minister Tavish Scott has voiced his disappointment.

An unsubsidised service between Campbeltown in Kintyre and Ballycastle in County Antrim ended in failure after running for three summers up to 1999.

A tendering exercise in 2002 failed to produce a response.

Unfortunately the organisations invited to bid have not pursued their initial interest and no bids have been received
Tavish Scott
Transport Minister

Four companies were invited to tender in the latest process - Harrison's (Clyde) Ltd, the Isle of Man Steam Packet Company, Serco Denholm and Western Ferries - but none of them had submitted a bid by the 1000 GMT deadline.

Mr Scott said the authorities in Northern Ireland were also very disappointed.

"We reported in September that we had received an encouraging level of initial interest in the route, and that we hoped this would lead to a compliant bid being received," he said.

"Unfortunately the organisations invited to bid have not pursued their initial interest and no bids have been received."

The minister added: "We will now explore the reasons for the poor response and investigate what options, if any, are available in the context of this tendering process.

"There is no guarantee, however, that this will produce a way forward.

"We will allow a fair and reasonable time for this process and will make full information available in due course."

We intend to maintain the close links that we have developed with the communities of Northern Ireland and Moyle in particular
Allan Macaskill
Argyll and Bute Council

Argyll and Bute Council leader Allan Macaskill said the authority was "bitterly disappointed".

"Whilst we recognise that this particular window of opportunity is now closed, we will not give up hope that a new one might open in the future and we will undertake to explore any opportunity that may present itself," he said.

"In addition, we intend to maintain the close links that we have developed with the communities of Northern Ireland and Moyle in particular, and make full use of existing routes."

A Scottish Executive spokesman said it was too early to say whether the amount of subsidy offered was the reason for the lack of response.

'Robust exercise'

After the failure of the 2002 tendering process, the executive and Northern Ireland Office agreed to go out to tender again, with the offer of an annual subsidy of up to 1m split 70%-30% between Edinburgh and Belfast for the five years of the contract period.

It is believed that Caledonian MacBrayne considered bidding but concluded the 1m annual subsidy would not cover the likely operating losses.

Independent MSP Brian Monteith has raised fears in parliament that ferry operators could attempt to cherry pick the best routes from Scotland's services.

NorthLink ferry
NorthLink suffered financial problems with its island services

Mr Monteith, convener of Holyrood's Audit Committee, spoke out as MSPs quizzed the public spending watchdog over a report into ferry operator NorthLink's services to Orkney and Shetland.

It revealed that millions of pounds of cash were needed to keep the services afloat.

Robert Black, the Auditor General for Scotland, said NorthLink had run into difficulties after two other firms started providing alternative services.

He said the competition, combined with higher than expected costs, led to financial problems for NorthLink.

Ministers re-tendered the routes in 2004 and that process is still to be completed.

Mr Monteith: "The fact that the two operators at a later date could come in and compete against NorthLink, throws up a question mark in that operators without subsidy believe they can come in and compete against the subsidised operator."

Mr Black told MSPs the NorthLink bid to run the service had been the cheapest and said: "It's my conclusion the Scottish Executive carried out a robust tendering exercise."

The committee was told that the new contract to run the services should be in place by April this year.


SEE ALSO:
Anxious wait over ferry service
28 Dec 05 |  Scotland
Ferry route shortlist published
20 Sep 05 |  Scotland
Official fears ferry service loss
26 Apr 05 |  Scotland
New effort to restore ferry link
30 Mar 05 |  Northern Ireland


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