A RETIRED teacher came into the Yes Forward Shop in Dunoon with problems. An immediate concern was the cancellation of the 907 bus service from the town to Glasgow. This service had to some extent moderated the disaster of the present passenger ferry service.

Let’s put things into context for readers first. Dunoon is only 25 miles from Glasgow. But this resident had become reliant on the 907 for going to health related appointments in Glasgow and elsewhere. This is because his preferred option – ferry to Gourock and train to Glasgow – is completely unreliable.

It is so unreliable, in fact, that even if he has an appointment at Inverclyde Hospital in Greenock, he books into a hotel in Gourock the night before (as do many others) to guarantee he will be there in time. He can do so with a teacher’s pension. Many others don’t have that option.

But let’s go back. It’s the afternoon of Friday, May 4, 2007. The counting of votes for Scottish Parliament election is nearly finished. It’s 46 seats for Labour, 46 for the SNP with Argyll and Bute – on a recount – still to come in. LibDem incumbent George Lyon is defending his 4196 majority and a win for him, which is fully expected, gives Labour the edge should the previous coalition be reformed, and the Unionists can combine to keep SNP out.

However, Jim Mather, below, wins on the recount with a majority of 815. The SNP become the largest party and becomes the Scottish Government But for the people of Cowal and Dunoon there was more to it.

The SNP had campaigned for two decades for new vehicle ferries on the Dunoon-Gourock route. Under this pressure, every Scottish administration had promised they would be provided. We even got a very expensive new breakwater and linkspan to accommodate the big new boats. But, no boats.

A Freedom of Information request exposed that, despite promises, no new boats had been planned by previous administrations.

The National:

This powered the local SNP ahead of that election. At the final pre-election meeting, the candidate repeated, to thunderous applause, the SNP’s commitment to two new vehicle-carrying ferries.

This promise won the seat, as a reading of the voting figures across the wider constituency confirms.

It shows LibDem Lyon mostly hanging on. A little ahead here, a little behind there, but hanging on. Except in Cowal where the LibDem vote collapsed. And put the SNP in.

These are the facts. The figures are all there. Dunoon put the SNP in government – on a new ferries promise. A whole book could be written about the obfuscations, distortions, selective use of legislation, inaccurate translation of EU regulation, influence of vested interests and a determined effort by the Transport Department over nearly four decades to undermine and eventually destroy what was a highly profitable, busiest in Europe, vehicle carrying service.

There is no doubt is that the people of Dunoon have an inferior ferry service to the one the SNP inherited when it took office in 2007. Yet the SNP won on a promise to act.

SNP figures over two decades campaigned on this issue. MEP Alyn Smith bust a gut for us in the EU and confirmed there was no problem with vehicle-carrying ferries. MSP Alex Neil, who was transport minister, actually got to the root of this issue and identified questionable duplicity in the transport department – and was moved. But as transport minister he described the silly little ferries we still have 12 years later as “unfit for purpose”.

This is not about Caledonian MacBrayne. This is about Transport Scotland which owns CMAL – Caledonian Maritime Assets – the company which in turn owns Scotland’s public ferries, ports and harbours. CMAL makes the decisions – apparently for the benefit of the people. Try telling that to people trying to get to the hospital from Dunoon on a windy day.

Nor is this about Western Ferries an efficient private company which operates a similar but not nearly as convenient route. It has been given a gold mine and handed a shovel.

It is digging furiously, as any private company would, and defending its commercial interest with huge vigour. The problem is it is defending against Transport Scotland, which has provided absolutely no defence of the public interest and has, in the belief of most Cowalites, deliberately thrown the fight (while providing questionable advice to a succession of very busy ministers).

Recent events have brought this issue back into contentious concern again. An announcement that the “not fit for purpose” Argyll Ferries service would be discontinued and that CalMac would again take over the Gourock to Dunoon service brought happy expectation in Dunoon which was soon dashed as folk read further on that “the same boats would be used”. It is difficult to put into words how absolutely unacceptable that statement was.

These are the “unfit for purpose” boats that cannot operate in anything much more than a knee-high swell (on a frequently stormy crossing). Yet this is the “commuter service” that connects directly to the train service many of Dunoon’s people try to use to get to their work in Glasgow, and to hospital appointments, and which students use to get to college and university. These folk are normally trusting people. But their prevailing view now is that this appalling and unreliable service which replaced the hugely popular, reliable vehicle-carrying service was designed to fail – that a process started by a Tory government to replace a profitable publicly owned service with a private operator has continued since.

The Dunoon-Gourock service has only survived because of the dogged insistence of the people to keep using it. SNP councillor Gordon Blair, in writing to Scottish Ministers, describes the nonsense well. “I know its panto season,” he commented. “But alas the Dunoon/Gourock Ferry provision is actually beyond a pantomime and following the proposals for passengers only, it is now a complete farce.”

John Paterson, a determined campaigner for years, describes the recent announcement as the final death knell for the service as he is sure it will be decided not viable.

LET’S look back a bit. The old boats, the “Streakers” – the Juno, the Jupiter and the Saturn, in the 30 years when they were properly deployed, were never off for one whole day. The journey – and this will amaze the present generation of travellers – commenced in Dunoon and finished at Glasgow Central one hour and 13 minutes later. Folk travelled daily this way to work or other appointments in Glasgow.

This is no longer possible much of the time (unless, at considerable expense – about £100 per week in private ferry fares – you use your car on the alternative service from a couple of miles out of Dunoon).

As the marvellous “Streaker” vessels, designed specifically for this route came to the end of their lives every Scottish administration promised appropriate replacements. And all delivered nothing.

The National:

THERE is a nervousness about Dunoon and Cowal today. The high street is dotted with closed shops. This is hardly unique to us certainly but the shop owners can still remember the days when every half hour cars would come into the town off the big ferry and stop for shopping.

Foot passengers and car-loads of tourists would come directly into a town significantly relying on tourist revenues. Any suggestion that loosing this boost was unimportant is stupid. But much of the tourist traffic coming into Cowal at Hunters Quay now just goes north without coming near Dunoon.

Then there is the evacuation. Everywhere one turns, there are houses for sale. A few minutes’ drive from Dunoon to Toward passes more than 20 sign boards and it is the same all across Cowal.

There are two sets of evacuees. Senior folk are leaving because of the difficulty of getting to medical appointments. On a bad day, relying on public transport can mean up to four different vehicles to get to Inverclyde Hospital . Then there are the working families who are finding that getting to good jobs in Glasgow is much easier if you leave Dunoon. These, of course, are the people who provide the kids for the schools. (The school’s roll has plummeted to just over 600 from decades at more than 1000).

Many people used to travel to Glasgow and back on the two hugely popular CalMac commuter specials sailings. This may sound silly but many folk now have two cars – one on either side of the Clyde at the Western Ferry terminals. There are no car parks on either side of the river and these cars are parked up to half-a-mile along the main roads on either side. But having two cars is still cheaper than paying daily vehicle tickets on the ferry.

As it is, much of the heavy traffic chooses the problematic 75-mile drive on the troubled A83 rather than pay the private ferry price for its two-mile crossing – which rather defeats the purpose of having the ferry in the first place.

Of course, anyone au fait with the official reports is aware that they declare that, on what was the busiest vehicle ferry crossing in Europe, there is more than enough vehicular traffic for competing services and that it’s very much in the public interest. Putting a lifeline service in the hands of a private monopoly is economically, socially and politically unacceptable.

So nobody can work out why we are where we are.

What is especially galling to the residents of Cowal is seeing the ferry provision for Rothesay. If you want to go to Costa Clyde now you get on a train at Glasgow Central Station and at Wemyss Bay you can board the lovely big new Calmac “Argyll” or “Bute” (both more than 70 metres long) and have a nice coffee in a well-appointed cafe before you disembark – in the centre of Rothesay. Bute’s population is under 6000, Cowal’s is 16,000-plus with roads north to Inveraray, Oban and Fort William. So again the question is: “Where is the public interest here?”

Dunoon has two, outdated, decrepit, frequently dirty little passenger ferries – both “unfit for purpose” and which are off about 10% of the time. And even when they are on, struggling in poor weather makes for a very unpleasant ride.

But, of course, Transport Scotland put this route out tender for a vehicle-carrying ferry. None has come forward. Oh dear. The fact is a substantial majority of the Cowal population wants the vehicle-carrying, reliable ferry service from Dunoon town centre it was promised. But some think the latest suggestion being floated is fine. That is that we should have a 40m-plus passenger-only vessel which would be reliable in most weathers. This is superficially attractive. Then you realise at that size it would be sailing three-quarters empty even at busy times – and at huge public subsidy.

You could put a small ballroom or a five-a-side football park on to it – or, as the same person sensibly suggested, cars and lorries and then it would require no subsidy at all.

That in fact is the only intelligent solution – a vehicle-carrying ferry service. So again the question raises its head.

Where is the public interest here?