DUNOON is about 25 miles from Glasgow. Let’s go back a few years and take our car there, with a couple of passengers, from Dunoon across to Gourock on the Caledonian MacBrayne ferry. We’d have to be there early as the service was on the Europe’s busiest ferry crossing. You’d have to wait half an hour for the next ferry if you weren’t there on time. The vehicle deck could already be full. Plenty of room for hundreds of passengers, of course, and a well equipped cafe to relax in on a crossing on a big sturdy boat – the so-called “streakers,” the Juno, the Jupiter or the Saturn, designed very specifically to deal with this frequently stormy crossing.

Many people of course would just leave their car in Dunoon as the ferry connected to the regular train to Glasgow at Gourock’s combined ferry port and rail station.

And now to 2015. You are at Dunoon Pier waiting for the passenger-only boat to Gourock. Nice wee boats. One from the upper Solent. One from an Irish lough. You are looking at the several million pound unused ro-ro docking facility that was built more than 10 years ago to serve the new ro-ro vehicle carrying ferries that Dunoon was promised – by everybody – and didn’t get. And hoping the breeze doesn’t strengthen. Anything over a knee-high swell makes the wee boats inoperable. “Bath tub” boats, as they are described in Dunoon. Declared unequivocally “unfit for purpose” a few years ago by the then Scottish Transport Minister Alex Neil but still in service (a lot of the time) on the route. But not if it’s a bit windy. And winter’s moving in.

You are going to college or university. Or maybe your work. Or perhaps you are one of the many thousand annual referrals from South Argyll to Inverclyde Hospital (via the connecting bus at Gourock ferry terminal) or RAH in Paisley. And the wee boats are off – in the winter sometimes several times a day and not unusually several days in a week. They are off as I write this. So you have to scramble on a shuttle bus (if you are lucky) or a taxi to Western Ferries, two miles out of Dunoon, which takes you to a terminal over two miles away from Gourock and the railway connection.

If, for instance, you are an old person from Strachur or Tighnabruaich with a hospital appointment and a very limited bus service to Dunoon and its ferry, you could conceivably find yourself in mid-winter requiring up to five different items of transport either way and a minimum of three – and if you miss any of it you can’t get to the hospital, or you can’t get home. Or you miss college or can’t get to your work on time. Or you just pack up and leave Dunoon and Cowal, which an increasing number of people are doing.

SO how did we get here? CalMac has traditionally run the Dunoon-Gourock service, probably the only CalMac service that ran at a profit. CalMac is publicly owned. In 1973, privately owned Western Ferries arrived with a competing service from an out-of-town terminal. This was good. Competition. Northbound commercial traffic could avoid Dunoon. Good – so the story went.

Then along came Margaret Thatcher. Suddenly Western Ferries should take all the vehicular traffic. “Competition” had lost its appeal apparently. Private enterprise was the new good. Dunoon was outraged. And the relentless destruction of the CalMac vehicle-carrying service commenced. A book could be written about this. With hugely increased traffic demand there were restrictions on CalMac services as Western Ferries increased theirs. CalMac went from a two-an-hour service down to hourly with no night sailings as WF sailed to midnight. The two chock-full daily commuter services were cancelled.

The pursers were removed from the boats. There was cancellation of the through-ticketing arrangement across the CalMac network. And then many people standing in tears on Dunoon Pier’s as the last CalMac vehicle-carrying ferry cast off, did a circle, tooted its horn for the last time and sailed off into history. And to the breakers yard. The seaworthy (if past decommissioning date) Juno and Jupiter were broken up almost immediately. The Saturn, which we were all told was going to cost hundreds of thousands to get back into service, was soon providing back-up on the Arran run.

Every Scottish administration over the past 30 years, of whatever political complexion, promised a renewal of the vehicle carrying service from Dunoon Pier to Gourock (and the Glasgow train).

And here’s a fact. That promise made by the SNP on the eve of the 2007 Scottish election gave Argyll and Bute to the SNP – the last result announced – to give us the first SNP government by one seat. Of that there is no doubt. LibDem George Lyon’s vote held up all across Argyll and Bute except in Cowal where the promise for two new ferries against a LibDem/ Labour administration that had failed on its promise to provide them saw Lyon lose 1800 Dunoon and Cowal votes and the estimable Jim Mather win the constituency by just over 800 votes.

The betrayal hurts. And it hurts most the many SNP members who dominated the campaign for new boats and supported every SNP candidate in Argyll and Bute from Neil McCormick onwards in their demand for a fulfilment of Labour and LibDem vows of new vehicle-carrying boats.

And then – hallelujah – an SNP Government with a clear campaign commitment. And new boats? Nope. The new Transport Minister had started repeating the same old rubbish all his predecessors had fed Dunoon. Captured by the transport department (again) was the opinion of the well informed Cowal residents.

Now a look at the issue. Were the promises made to Dunoon and Cowal the sort of fuzzy promises politicians carelessly make to ingratiate themselves at election time? No, they were not. We’ve got an unused several million pound ro-ro ferry link span to prove this. The fact is that exhaustive examinations of the issue – by the STUC, Deloitte-Touche and MVA – have all come to more or less to the same conclusions. As a vehicle-carrying service the route is economically viable and would be a huge benefit to Dunoon and Cowal. It is disastrous to a struggling Dunoon that visiting traffic no longer lands in the town. And in political and social terms, of course, it is not sensible to put a lifeline public service into the hands of a private monopoly.

Some have argued that, as there is a road alternative, this is not a “lifeline” service. Dunoon is about 25 miles from Glasgow. The road alternative – via the troubled A83 – is the equivalent of going from Edinburgh to Dundee via Glasgow. Yet a vast amount of heavy traffic chose to drive this 80 miles rather than pay the fares on the existing vehicle service.

Most travellers in Cowal believe the passenger-only service, with boats patently unsuitable for the crossing, was designed to fail as quickly as possible. The obstinate passengers have not allowed this to happen as it still provides a direct connection to the train – most of the time. But it is informative to note that not once in their many years of service were the lamented streakers off all day. The “bath tub” boats are off several times a week and often off for whole days. A commuter service it is not. The equation is perfectly simple. This crossing, exposed to southerly and south westerly gales is a frequently stormy crossing. To service it boats have to be specifically designed (as were the streakers). When they are the required 50 to 60 metres long there is no point in not carrying vehicles. Or you would need to find about seven or eight hundred passengers each crossing to use up the space. The passenger-only service requires a large subsidy. A vehicle- carrying service does not. A passenger-only service is nonsense economically, socially and operationally. And politically.

ALEX Neil as Transport Minister quickly recognised the case for a vehicle-carrying service. He was replaced by Nicola Sturgeon who immediately got to grips with the situation. Both are highly regarded by the Ferry Action Group and Sturgeon as First Minister has recently restated that the Scottish Government’s policy is to put vehicle-carrying boats on. Derek McKay as present Transport Minister is now engaging with the Dunoon-Gourock Ferry Action Group (D-GFAG). So why the hold-up?

Well there has been the problem of EU procurement rules, which can be read to suggest that only a private operator can actually purchase boats to run against a competing private company, meaning that publicly owned CalMac (having seen its streakers broken up) can’t do so. Then there was the EU-determined tender period of a short six years which meant building boats was hardly economically viable. Sturgeon’s intervention has had that increased to 12 years. So D-GFAG has been busy. It is confident that it has identified a company to build appropriate vehicle-carrying boats and provide the service.

So what is the remaining impediment? Step forward the transport department again. CalMac would expect to pay about £2.9 million in berthing fees across all its harbours on the West Coast of Scotland. The new charges set by the transport department for a vehicle-carrying service berthing at Gourock alone has been set at around £3m – about four times the actual cost of the servicing facility. This would of course be replicated by Argyll and Bute Council at the Dunoon side, doubling that cost – but in the process rendering any vehicle-carrying service virtually non-viable.

This imposition is quite probably illegal under EU law. The patience of the hard-working and determined D-GFAG is coming to an end. They are prepared to challenge this. Derek McKay will have an interesting meeting with the group sometime soon.