Leading councillors have criticised Wightlink for breaking ‘a vital rail link’ to the Island during the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic.
Council leader Dave Stewart issued statements saying he was ‘disappointed that, once again, we are in a position where the Portsmouth Harbour to Ryde Pier Head FastCat foot passenger route is to be suspended,’ although he said it was a ‘business decision’ by Wightlink. He welcomed Red Funnel and Hovertravel decisions to maintain or increase commuter services.
Councillor Paul Brading, Cabinet Member for Children’s Services, Education and Skills commented after Wightlink announced it would suspend the FastCat foot passenger service between Ryde Pier Head and Portsmouth Harbour from tomorrow (Friday). He said: “I am very concerned about the way that Wightlink are breaking a key rail link to the Isle of Wight at this difficult time, although I am glad they are still offering a service to allow Island students who study at Brockenhurst College to get to classes on time.
“Their actions are in contrast to Red Funnel and Hovertravel who have taken a more practical and pragmatic approach to help keep the Island connected with lifeline services during this pandemic.”
Cllr. Brading had previously written to Mark Jefferies of the Isle of Wight Ferry Facebook group saying: “One thing that concerned me, and many of my cabinet colleagues in first lockdown, was the ferry companies and what they did not do, or how slow they were to react to anything. …. I agree they must do more to help.”
Wightlink’s Chief Executive, Keith Greenfield, said: “We are sorry to suspend our FastCats and reduce sailings between Lymington and Yarmouth, however we will still be able to transport all essential travellers and supplies to the Isle of Wight on our remaining services.
“We will continue to monitor demand with a view to restoring services as soon as they become sustainable. Wightlink continue to work closely with the Isle of Wight Council Transport Infrastructure Board and the other cross-Solent operators to make sure the Island has the essential services it needs at this difficult time.”
Wightlink’s Lymington to Yarmouth car ferry service has been reduced to a weekday only, two hourly service, with the first sailing from Yarmouth departing at 7.30am instead of 6.25am to accommodate Island students attending Brockenhurst College.
Red Funnel have cut the frequency of its Red Jet passenger service between Cowes and Southampton, but are maintaining a seven day ‘commuter timetable’ from Monday (Nov 16), which they say will meet the needs of 70 per cent of its passengers. Hovertravel has added nine extra daily services for Monday to Friday covering the busy commuter periods. Both cross-Solent operators will now accept Wightlink foot passenger tickets, including rail and season tickets.
Mr Jeffries said: “At the very least Wightlink should have offered their regular commuter companies an early morning and evening service. They have made massive profits in the past, but they are very quick to hold out the begging bowl to government or cut services to Islanders as soon as they are faced with any loss of income.”
In July 2017 the Isle of Wight Infrastructure Taskforce, highlighted the profitability of Red Funnel and Wightlink in a key report, saying: “It is apparent that both operators are part of complex group structures, presumably established to minimise tax liabilities and maximise profits. The most recent filed accounts show earnings before interest, tax, depreciation and amortization (EBITDA) as £17.6m for Red Funnel and £20.7m for Wightlink, against turnover of profits of £48.4m and £62m respectively. Red Funnel operated with a sales margin of 42.8% and Wightlink 35.5%.”