By Scott Wright

THE privately-owned ferry company that operates connections between Gourock and Dunoon has signalled its determination to ensure its capacity is continually ahead of demand as the country eases out of lockdown.

Western Ferries (Clyde) introduced a new timetable for its car and foot passengers at the weekend to reflect rising demand for commuters returning to work and to meet an anticipated rise in people visiting relatives in the Inverclyde area.

The revision to the timetable marked the second time Dunoon-based Western has stepped up its services since the country moved into the first phase of the route map out of lockdown on May 28.

Western had dropped back to an hourly service to cater for key workers after lockdown conditions were imposed in March.

Now its timetable has been restored to around 45 per cent of the services it usually runs at the height of the summer season, with sailings departing every half hour from both Gourock and Dunoon from Monday to Thursdays. The frequency is stepped up to every 20 minutes at weekends.

Western has a fleet of four vessels and currently has two in operation between Monday and Thursday, and three over the weekend. The fourth is on “hot standby”.

Gordon Ross, managing director of Western, said: “I believe that it is critical that Western Ferries’ service both operates in full accordance with of all guidance emanating from Transport Scotland as well as providing a level of capacity that always exceeds the demand released as the Scottish Government rolls through its phases back to normality.

“The enhanced timetable introduced on Friday June 19 represents the third level of service provided since lockdown.

“The first was an hourly service, providing an essential service for key workers, first responders and of course the NHS. Following the relaxations on May 28, additional sailings over the morning and evening commuter peaks were introduced.”

He added: “This new timetable provides more sailings during the week and at the weekend to assist those returning to work, those travelling to visit relatives, shopping or those who have medical appointments in Inverclyde.

“Importantly, these enhancements will provide additional capacity when there is more freedom to travel and when the local tourism businesses reopen.

“This enhanced level of service represents about 45% of our normal summer timetable, however we have the ability to immediately respond to any further increases in demand. It is critical that Western Ferries’ service never acts as barrier to those having to or wishing to travel to and from Cowal, as well as further afield.”

Mr Ross conceded that the lockdown has had a “dramatic effect” on passenger numbers, noting that carryings were down around 85% over the period compared with previous years.

The company has furloughed a “few” members of staff but expressed the hope these employees will return to the fold as further sailings are introduced. Western typically has around 70 employees.

Asked what effect coronavirus has had on the local area, which relies heavily on the tourism industry with attractions including the Hunters Quay Holiday Village, Mr Ross said: “Dunoon, like every community, has been affected by the coronavirus outbreak, however with lockdown slowly easing, the focus going forward needs to be on maximising the local area’s strengths and attracting those who want to take full advantage of the natural resources.

“On the basis that everyone has recently rediscovered the joys of walking, cycling, and running, as individuals and as part of a family group, perhaps Dunoon and Cowal could and should capitalise on and develop this sector.”

The move by Western to expand services came shortly after campaigners on the Isle of Arran complained that the reduction of services imposed by CalMac under the state-backed operator’s emergency Covid-19 timetable was “unsustainable” for the island economy.

The Arran Ferry Action Group, which has round 1,400 members, said the reduced timetable would hamper the ability of the island’s tourism industry to rebound when the sector is reopened on July 15.