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By Gordon Neish

Young people in Scotland will no doubt be delighted that free bus travel for under 22s is to be introduced on January 31 – but older ferry users face a fare rise of up to 167 per cent just a few weeks afterwards.
The whopping rise was agreed by Strathclyde Partnership for Transport (SPT)’s Concession Scheme Joint Committee back in March, but the news has only emerged recently.
On both CalMac and Western Ferries people with an SPT concession card – usually over 60s – will see subsidised single fares rise from £1 to £2.50 and return fares rise from £2.50 to £4 in April. Some, however, are calling for the decision to be reversed.
SPT runs the Glasgow Underground, and deals with buses, trains, and ferries which operate between the 12 council areas of the west of Scotland, and is one of seven regional transport partnerships in Scotland.
For people in Cowal and Bute ferries are as essential as buses are on the mainland, being the only means of transport to and from hospital and other essential appointments in Inverclyde and beyond. Buses, however, are free for over 60s.
Age Scotland
News of the rise was met with dismay by Age Scotland, the leading charity and advocacy agency for our more senior citizens.
Adam Stachura, the organisation’s head of policy, said: “It’s extremely concerning to see ferry fares for older residents rise by a staggering 167 per cent for a return journey.
“The ferry provides a vital link for visiting friends and family, shopping, and hospital appointments. This price jump will make it more difficult for older people to stay connected and carry out essential tasks, and is likely to have a detrimental impact on their health and wellbeing.
“There’s no doubt this will deter many from traveling as often as usual, with some even choosing not to travel at all. Others will have no choice but to pay the higher fares, even if they are struggling to get by on a fixed income.
“Older people have already struggled during the pandemic, especially those living alone and in remote locations, with soaring levels of loneliness and isolation. Now that restrictions are easing, the last thing we should be doing is creating additional barriers to them getting out and about.
“We understand SPT is under financial pressure, but we would urge them to rethink this decision and do the right thing for their older customers in Bute and Cowal.
“It’s also important to keep the routes viable, and discouraging people from traveling could lead to further challenges in the future.”
SPT Survey
An SPT survey taken before the committee’s decision noted: “When asked about the impact of a small increase in the concessionary fare, 51 per cent of regular ferry users said they would make fewer journeys with a further three per cent making no journeys.”
Despite this, the decision was passed by all members of the committee.
An SPT spokesperson said: “Without the increase in fares, the scheme was financially unsustainable and its continuation beyond a year or two was in doubt.
“Concessionary fares have not kept pace with wider operator fare increases so the scheme has been costing more year-on-year. Local authorities, facing decreasing budgets, could not afford to contribute more to the scheme and without a new fare structure, there was a real danger the scheme would not continue.
“As an example, on the Gourock-Dunoon route, the current concessionary fares provides a journey discount of 85 per cent. This discount, which is not dissimilar to discounts offered right across all ferry routes, puts financial pressures on Strathclyde Concessionary Travel Scheme budgets and is unsustainable at these discount levels.
“Under the new fares, the discount on this route equates to just under 60 per cent, which we believe retains a generous discount whilst helping the scheme’s financial sustainability.
“Introducing the cap fare of £2.50 single and £4 return still offers a significant saving to users.”
The concessionary travel scheme applies to 25 ferry routes on the west coast operating between Ardrossan-Brodick in the south and as far north as Coll and Tiree-Oban.
Western Ferries
When introduced in 2013 Western Ferries didn’t pass on the passenger contribution element of the concessionary fare to customers, with eligible passengers travelling free until a significant increase in 2019.
We understand that around 80 per cent of Cowal-Inverclyde using SPT concession ferry cards (which includes car passengers) do so on Western Ferries.
Western’s managing director Gordon Ross said: “Hopefully it’s not too late in the day for this to be reversed.”
Argyll and Bute MSP Jenni Minto said: “I am aware of the intentions of SPT to increase the price of concessionary tickets on public transport including ferries.
“I have written to SPT to ask for a full explanation for these changes, and to ensure the concerns of my constituents are considered.”
Chair of the Cowal Transport Forum, Cllr Alan Reid (LibDem, Cowal) added: “This fare increase is a bitter blow for Cowal pensioners. SPT is running out of money because of Scottish Government cutbacks.
“The Scottish Government should give SPT the money needed to stop this fare increase.
“The Scottish Government is discriminating against ferry passengers by giving both older and younger bus passengers free bus travel, but failing to do the same for ferry passengers.
“This is made even worse by the exclusion of the two Dunoon-Gourock ferry services from Road Equivalent Tariff ferry fares.”

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