The privately operated Western Ferries is to build two new ferries for its Gourock/Dunoon service, and says its plan to launch services to Arran is still alive but is delayed by uncertainty over the fate of Caledonian MacBrayne.

It wants to know if Road Equivalent Tariff (RET), which cuts fares by up to 50%, will be extended to other CalMac routes and calls for an early announcement by the Scottish Government on whether the CalMac network of 24 routes is to be broken up when it is next tendered in 2013.

Gordon Ross, managing director of Western Ferries, told The Herald the two new vessels represented a significant investment which would ensure the company provided a first-class service to the Cowal community and all its customers in the future.

He said Western Ferries’ vessel renewal programme had been suspended in 2003 due to political uncertainty surrounding the subsidised car ferry service operated by CalMac. Following the outcome of the recent tender positive decisions were taken to provide additional capacity for expected growth in the future.

The new vessels will be faster and bigger than the ferries they are replacing, which carry 34 cars. He anticipates that the first would be delivered in time for the 2013 summer season.

The company has a long standing relationship with the Fergusons yard at Port Glasgow and Mr Ross said: “Western Ferries are hopeful Fergusons are able to submit a competitive bid. Western Ferries now has the certainty to invest in its and the local communities’ future. Many local organisations have ambitious plans for Dunoon and Cowal as a tourist destination and with these vessels Western Ferries provide the capacity to meet this increase in demand.”

On Western’s plans for Arran he said a crucial consideration was whether the RET pilot scheme announced four years ago, which has seen ferry fares to the Outer Isles and Coll and Tiree reduce by up to half, would be extended to other routes.

He said: “The Arran project is still very much alive but any conclusion is being delayed by the uncertainty surrounding the Scottish Government’s promise to extend the RET pilot and whether the Arran route will be tendered separately from the main CalMac bundle in 2013.”

The Scottish Government has already confirmed that the lifeline services to Orkney and Shetland would be broken up and Mr Ross is now seeking equal clarity as soon as possible on CalMac.

He said: “An early announcement with regards the structure of the CalMac tender in 2013 will give all interested parties the best opportunity to investigate innovative solutions to deliver enhanced services at a lower cost to the taxpayer. The outcome of the single route tender on the Gourock to Dunoon route was an enhanced passenger-only service and a £1.5 million (47%) saving on previous subsidy levels. There must be merit in extending this approach onto other routes.”

But economist Professor Neil Kay said: “The break-up of the CalMac routes will lead to unregulated private monopolies over essential services, cherry pickers accessing the high value and/or low cost parts of individual routes, leaving the taxpayer to pick up the high cost public services that the cherrypicker is not interested in.”

A spokeswoman for Transport Scotland said: “The Scottish Government has reaffirmed its commitment to Road Equivalent Tariff (RET) on the current routes, and look to roll out to the Argyll and the Clyde islands in light of the Western Isles pilot. Ministers are considering the roll-out of the RET scheme.”