THE managing director of Western Ferries has hailed the resilience of its operations amid the challenges posed by the pandemic, as the privately-owned company behind the Gourock to Dunoon service deals with the prospect of a further major lockdown to suppress surging rates of coronavirus.

Gordon Ross said the Western service has carried on uninterrupted since the crisis erupted in March as he unveiled new accounts for the company, which reflect the early impact of the pandemic.

The accounts show pre-tax profits dipped to £2.1 million in the year to March 31 from £2.7m the year before, with turnover unchanged at £8.5m.

Mr Ross said the first lockdown in March resulted in the number of sailings it operates falling from around nearly 90 a day to 30.

While lockdown was imposed before the start of the tourist season, leading to a sharp fall in number of people who traditionally use Western Ferries to access Dunoon and the Cowal peninsula, Western maintained its service to ensure that key workers such as NHS staff could continue to reach their places of work.

Western has a fleet of four vessels, and in normal times operates a core timetable of six sailings an hour, with three ferries in operation at any one time. That was cut back to two sailings an hour during the first lockdown, meaning there was one departure from Dunoon and one from Gourock on the hour.

Mr Ross said: “We have a covenant with the local community [to provide] transportation for key workers, responders and the NHS, so we kept operating.

“Western Ferries, like a shopping centre or a restaurant, is a footfall business. We rely on people moving. It is a fast and frequent service we provide to enable people to connect with Cowal and Inverclyde and further afield. But during lockdown, it was not that – it was key workers, first responders, NHS [staff].”

The importance of Western maintaining its services during the first wave of coronavirus infections was recognised by Transport Scotland, which provided the firm with a grant of £214,492 in recognition of its provision of “essential ferry services” during the pandemic.

The grant was confirmed by Paul Wheelhouse, Cabinet Secretary for Transport, in response to a written question to the Scottish Government in November, which asked how much financial support had been provided to Pentland Ferries and Western “during the period of travel and other restrictions brought about by the Covid-19 pandemic”. Pentland, which operates a service between Gills Bay in the north of mainland Scotland and St Margaret’s Hope on Orkney, received £196,212 of financial support.

The assistance was provided for the “delivery of essential ferry services, particularly for support of patient in vehicle ambulance transfers”, Mr Wheelhouse said.

Mr Ross said: “It was the first time I had seen anything in writing that said Western Ferries’ service was an essential lifeline service.”

He added: “It helped greatly. Importantly, it was recognition from Transport Scotland that Western Ferries’ service was an essential lifeline service.”

As lockdown conditions were gradually eased in summer, Mr Ross said passengers showed they were “keen” to return to the Cowal Peninsula for leisure pursuits.

Western Ferries then saw a spike in passenger numbers following a further landslip which closed the A83 at the Rest and Be Thankful. It was revealed in The Herald on Sunday that it could be 10 years before a permanent solution is put in place to stop landslides on the key route, a 100-mile stretch that connects Loch Lomond with Campeltown. Transport Scotland has still to put a timescale on its reopening following the most recent landslip.

Mr Ross said: “That is another example where Western Ferries was able to very quickly respond to a significant increase in demand. During lockdown, it was one boat an hour. We then, overnight, had to jump up to providing 130 sailings a day to cope with the traffic that had come from the Rest and Be Thankful.”

However, while Western has benefited from increased demand while the section of road has been closed, Mr Ross said finding a permanent solution was important as it would benefit the wider Argyll and Bute area.

Meanwhile, with Scotland having moved into level four lockdown on Boxing Day amid concerns over the spread of the new variant of Covid-19, Western is facing a further period of reduced passenger demand.

Asked how the firm’s accounts for the current year were shaping up, Mr Ross said: “We entered into lockdown as a very strong company, and even with the dramatic drop in patronage… we should be fine. We are anticipating a very quiet January, February, March. I think every business is waiting for the vaccination programme to be rolled out, but that could be months.”

Mr Ross added that further capital expenditure plans, including proposals to “future proof” an overnight berth at Kilmun, “have been put on hold.”