Limited Strangford ferry service concern

Limited Strangford ferry service concern

29 July 2020

AS coronavirus lockdown restrictions continue to ease, there is increasing concern that the Strangford ferry service is not operating at full capacity.

The last sailings in the evening are 7pm from Strangford and 7.15pm from Portaferry, with no service between noon and 2pm.

The Department for Infrastructure — which runs the service — said that while it recognised the importance of the service to the local community, crossings had been “significantly disrupted” due to a reduction in crew numbers as a result of the global pandemic.

Government officials say the midday break is necessary as the ferry is only being manned by a single crew, but insist that they are working to ensure the normal full service resumes as soon as is practicable.

A number of people have expressed concern that with the emphasis on ‘staycations’ this summer, steps have not been taken to provide a full ferry service to meet the needs of local holidaymakers and those in the business community.

The suspension of the service between noon and 2pm daily has raised eyebrows with people on either side of the lough who wish to cross the waterway left with no option but to either wait for the service to resume or take a significant detour by road.

And as schools prepare to reopen, politicians and parents say they are keen to find out what plans the Department of Infrastructure has in place to ensure children’s travel plans are not disrupted come the end of August and early September.

South Down MLA Emma Rogan has called on education minister Peter Weir and his infrastructure counterpart Nicola Mallon to provide clarity to children who use the ferry service to travel to school.

Ms Rogan said that last year over 170 ferry passes were issued to children who use the ferry crossing and that currently only 33 foot passengers are allowed on each crossing, while buses are not permitted to board.

“We are just over a month away from the proposed date for schools returning and so far, children and families have no clarity about what ferry services will be operating,” said Ms Rogan.

“I have written to the education and infrastructure ministers seeking clarity on what preparations are in place to get these children to school safely. Children and families must not be left in the dark.”

A spokeswoman for the Department for Infrastructure said it “fully recognises” the importance of the ferry service to the local community. 

She explained that its operation has been significantly disrupted because of a reduction in the number of crew available as result of the coronavirus pandemic.

The spokeswoman said ferry crew members are correctly concerned for both their own health and that of their passengers and, as such, are required to follow public health advice in relation to self-isolation, shielding and social distancing.

“In order to ensure the safety of passengers, the ferry can only sail if the minimum complement of competent crew required by the Maritime and Coastguard Agency is on board,” she explained.

“The need to ensure availability of the minimum crew number from a reduced pool, while providing a reliable and sustainable service, created an essential need to introduce a temporary reduced timetable.”

The government department said the ferry timetable was focused on morning and evening traffic peaks to facilitate those travelling to and from work and other essential users. 

Officials also insist that the midday break is necessary as the ferry is being operated each day by a single crew.

“A reduced timetable was introduced on April 6 with the last sailing from Portaferry at 5.15pm. Subsequent improvements in crew availability have already made it possible to extend the operating hours twice to provide the current last sailing from Portaferry 7.15pm,” said the spokeswoman.

She added: “The Department is continuing to monitor crew availability and is working to ensure the normal full and reliable service returns as soon as practicable.”