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Bridge to Bute 'only way to combat high ferry fares'

A BRIDGE linking Bute with the mainland may be the only answer to combat high ferry fares and a lack of late-night services, a Government sponsored survey has revealed.

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The survey, carried out by Argyll and the Islands Enterprise, is critical of the island's ferry operator Caledonian MacBrayne for failing to provide a competitive service and leaving islanders stranded during the winter after its early evening crossing.

Business groups are preparing to stage a public meeting to tell CalMac to reappraise its service or risk hastening the demise of Bute's economy.

Most Bute residents want to keep their special island status but 55% of the 3000 who responded to the Lec survey said they would welcome a permanent road link to span the Kyles of Bute to Colintraive on the Cowal peninsula rather than continue facing high fares.

The third of a mile crossing between Rhubodaich on Bute and Colintraive is one of the most costly ferry crossings by distance in Europe at 70p per person and #5.20 for a car.

Travellers have also complained about charges for the half-hour crossing across the Clyde from Rothesay to Wemyss Bay.

CalMac charges #2.55 per person and #9.10 for a car of less than four metres long for this monopoly route, which is significantly higher than the #2.10 per person and #5.70 for any car using its crossing between Dunoon and Gourock, where it faces competition from Western Ferries.

The survey, which was commissioned by the Bute Transport Users Group, showed that 71% of islanders wished to see a fast ferry/transport link to Glasgow with 85% calling for reduced total travel time between the island and the city.

On existing sailings, 24% welcomed the increased summer timetable but wanted these extended to winter services. Other improvements requested were late-night sailings, especially at weekends, special visitors tickets, driver's fare included in the car price, and secure parking for vehicles at terminals.

Further demands included the charging of cars at a single rate instead of by length, less disparity of charges between the Rothesay and Dunoon routes, a better range of concessionary and reduced fares, and improvements to CalMac staff attitudes.

Dunoon-based Database Direct (Scotland) Research Division, authors of the survey, claimed the views of the islanders were compounded by the fact that in the absence of competition CalMac decisions were simplified to maximise profits or minimise losses.

Mr Jim Lyle, president of Bute Merchants' Association, said: ''This survey is a damning endictment of its service to this island. A bridge would seem to many to be the only alternative to the problems we face.''

Mr Ray Dalton, chairman of Bute Transport Users Group, said the survey was instigated to add weight to a campaign to improve the island's ferry service.

''It costs an average family in a car #30 to come here, so the effect on day trippers alone is obvious, while fares are prohibitive to companies operating on the island,'' he said.

Mr Dalton said a public meeting would be called to decide how to lobby both the Government and the ferry company.

However, a spokesman for CalMac said the options of a competing service or a bridge were ''ridiculous'' and defended his company's pricing policy. He claimed CalMac had never received complaints about staff attitude.

He said options of 10 journey tickets which offer up to a #7.20 saving on the normal single fares on the Wemyss Bay service and short break returns of #3.70 proved the company was committed to providing concessions.

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