Right, I've decided to stick my neck out on this contentious subject. The Executive in Edinburgh wants to run a pilot project on the Ullapool to Stornoway ferry route, which would see fares slashed by 30%. RET means that ferry fares will be equivalent to the cost of a similar journey by road.
It is suggested that RET could see the cost of taking a car back and forth to Lewis reduced from about £200 to £140, if the 30% is correct. Some figures even quote a fare of £30 for a car. RET would bring hundreds of jobs and millions of pounds of investment. The current cost of Calmac's fares is said to be a stranglehold on the island's economy. A study into the fare structures is to be carried out this year, with the actual pilot running in 2008.
This morning's 6.54am Highlands and Islands news bulletin had an Argyll politician complaining that his area, which is also rich in islands, peninsulas and ferries, was now being deprived of the RET pilot. It would draw tourism away from Argyll to the Western Isles. What utter rubbish. RET is supposed to be for the benefit of the islanders, not primarily for the tourists, although lower fares are bound to attract more people onto the ferries.
I am not 100% convinced of the benefits of RET. I agree that Calmac charges high fares, but it should be born in mind that the company still runs the Ullapool to Stornoway route at a loss. The total subsidy for Calmac is about £30m per annum, which will have to increase if RET is introduced. Subsidies are paid for by the tax payer, including residents of the islands. Calmac is the only company interested in running these life line services; the recent tendering exercise has shown that much. They are running 12 months of the year, including in winter, when hardly anybody is on board. That is something that the man in Argyll has to bear in mind.