THE business veteran who was part of the team which bought out Western Ferries 21 years ago has called for the Scottish ferry network to be split into bundles to boost competition as he steps down as chairman of the Dunoon-based firm.

Alistair Ross, whose background in the whisky trade led him to join the Western board in 1974, said the reliability of the islands’ lifeline services would be improved if there were more operators to rival CalMac. His comments follow a special investigation by The Herald into the challenges facing the ferry service, which revealed that crucial services are being continually undermined by an ageing fleet, insufficient capacity and a chronic lack of vessel flexibility.

Asked how he believes ferry services could be improved, Mr Ross, who became chairman of Western in 2002, said: “In my opinion the first thing that has to be done is to break up the bundle, because there are in fact geographical fits. I mean you have got Orkney [and] Shetland at the top, you’ve got Stornoway, Lewis, Harris, Benbecula, [and] the Uists, you have got the Oban-Mull-Islay connection, and you have got the Clyde, which would be Rothesay, Dunoon and Arran.

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“Just split the bundle up and allow companies in with the opportunity to get their own boats, because at the moment when the contracts go out, it’s the same old MacBraynes boats, it’s the same crewing level, it’s the same timetables.”

Mr Ross, who said it would require a “strong” transport minister to force through such change, echoed calls made recently by maritime experts and islanders for routes to be served by a bigger fleet of smaller vessels. Supporters say this would provide for more frequent sailings, arguing that smaller vessels require simpler terminals and are less costly to run from a crewing perspective.

Mr Ross said: “Of course, all these big boats they build at £50 million, they are time limited. Because the [crew] live on board the ship, they can only work so many hours in the day, whereas all our staff in Western Ferries live at home in Dunoon. If the Rest and Be Thankful (A83) is shut, we can pull out crews and we can work four boats 24 hours a day if we wanted, whereas they are totally inflexible.”

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Mr Ross questioned the need for busy routes such as those serving Islay, Arran and Mull to be subsidised by the Scottish Government, and argues savings could be made if the ferries did not have to provide restaurants and living quarters for crew.

He noted that privately-owned Western has invested £30m in vessels and infrastructure in its Gourock to Dunoon car and passenger foot route.

Mr Ross, whose son Gordon is Western’s managing director, said: “We have no catering facilities at all – our job is to get people from A to B as quickly as possible.”

“Roy Pedersen (maritime expert) knows that, we all know that the boats are too big. What people want are smaller boats [and a] more regular service.

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“They don’t want two boats a day, they want a boat every two hours so that they can move around. If a big boat breaks down, you have no cover.”

Mr Ross, who is originally from Elgin, began his career in 1958 with Scottish Malt Distillers (later DCL). In 1964 he moved to Inver House Distillers, then owned by US firm Publicker Liquor Industries, before moving to Islay to run Bowmore Distillery in 1968. By 1974 he was in charge of Bowmore’s subsidiaries in Glasgow, looking after warehousing and blending, and it was then his association with Western formed. He exited the industry in the late ‘80s after Bowmore was acquired by Suntory, with the Japanese firm acquiring Morrison Bowmore outright in 1994.

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Mr Ross, who lives on Islay, informed the board of his decision to retire yesterday. Asked how he feels about retiring, Mr Ross, who will turn 80 next year, said: “I’m a bit sad, actually, because I have thoroughly enjoyed it. I was thinking, in fact, an oxymoron would be celebrating retirement. It is an oxymoron because I’ve loved being the chairman of Western Ferries. I’ve been very proud, in fact, to have been involved in Western Ferries.”