3/06/08

Scottish tears over loss of Zeebrugge ferry

By Mike Lowson (Aberdeen Press and Journal)

THIS week, I have been struggling to hold back my tears in the face of a sudden shock that plunged my usually avuncular demeanour into the depths of despair and grief at the loss of a good friend. It is hard coming to terms with the fact that I will probably never again meet Christos or his stunning female acquaintance. Idiot that I am, I didn’t even get her name or number as I was certain that we would meet again. Not now, however. I saw her, last June, in a plush bar as I relaxed in luxury while enjoying the spectacular view from the windows and digesting the delicious dinner menu. Christos, who worked there, ensured everyone’s orders were met swiftly and courteously with the addition of some friendly chat. My colleagues were first to spot the woman across the room. Like pointer dogs signalling the landing place of a downed bird, they were propelled instantly from a state of recumbent relaxation into one of amorous anticipation. When I looked round, I spotted the source of their excitement. She was lovely. Christos just smiled, benignly, and brought me another beer. I returned a few days later and while chatting to Christos in the bar, I saw her again. She was even more captivating second time round and I mused then that life couldn’t get much better – good food, good drink, good company, good service and a good job that I wasn’t instead suffering the horrors of a British motorway service station.

You see, this bar was on the Superfast ferry from Rosyth, near Edinburgh, to Zeebrugge, Belgium. Christos and his charming colleague were just two of the helpful ferry staff for whom nothing seemed to be too much trouble. The fact that my colleagues and I could “drive” to the continent direct from Scotland in comfort without having to endure the endless motorway run to the Channel coast was a delight.

Don’t believe jokes you hear about Belgium, by the way. It is a great country and the contrast between Bruges – my destination last June – and Aberdeen is akin to comparing Sophia Loren with Nora Batty. It’s no contest.

If you plan going there with the car next year, however, that tedious and tiring drive down south is inescapable. Superfast announced this week it is to halt its Rosyth-Zeebrugge sailings in September. Farewell to Christos and the lovely whatshername.

It took years of patient negotiations to establish the direct ferry link, but Superfast now blames rising fuel costs and poor passenger numbers for its decision. Perhaps that is true, perhaps not, but the ferry’s withdrawal sends worrying messages from a Scotland that could slide into isolationism if fast action isn’t taken.
Of urgent concern is the soaring cost of fuel. This might be causing tremors in the Home Counties, but in Scotland the shockwaves are off the Richter scale. Our nation’s geography and climate mean fuel costs are always high and that has implications far beyond the current crippling pain at the petrol pumps. I don’t know if Gordon Brown has recently experienced that pain personally, as I can’t picture him popping out of one of his well-upholstered government gas-guzzlers at a petrol station and paying the bill, just to collect points on his supermarket loyalty card. Still, he must realise how dangerous the fuel situation is for the future of his administration. With the crisis deepening, it was no surprise to find Blackadder Brown hotfooting it to Banchory with the feeble flunky, Captain Darling, for a love-in with oil industry leaders who have thus far displayed all the human sympathy of a deranged General Melchett. There were lots of weasel words, lots of expansive gestures and lots of stuck-on smiles, of course, but nothing changed. Today, as yesterday, we are slowly being throttled by rising fuel costs.

Scotland’s summer tourist season is under way and the impact of fuel prices on potential visitors has yet to be felt, but with island ferry prices under severe pressure and pump prices in the north reaching unsustainable levels, positive intervention is needed, and soon, if our economy is to escape ruin. Sadly, the withdrawal of the Superfast ferry sends signals that Scotland is too expensive to visit. It also implies that we are unimpressed by direct European links. So why did we not use the service in droves? Was it too expensive, too inconvenient, or are we now just too inward-looking to value such a link sufficiently highly?

Whatever the reason, it is a worrying portent of what might lie ahead. Christos will easily find work elsewhere, I’m sure, as will his female colleague, but finding an equally civilised replacement for them, and their civilised ferry, will be much harder.

Superfast has cast Scotland aside and others might follow. Blackadder and Darling need some super-duper-fast answers that are rather more realistic than one of bonehead Baldrick’s cunning but ultimately pointless plans.

Finally to my heroes of the week and more power to the pedals of Black Bridge Bikes, a project of Inverness-based Merkinch Development Ventures. Volunteers there have refurbished dozens of bikes that had been abandoned as scrap at the Inverness recycling centre and then sold them to new users. The project demonstrates perfectly that our throwaway society is as farsighted as a myopic mole. The scheme presses almost every green button possible and deserves every success in future. The manager of Black Bridge Bikes, Maria Throp, said that two-thirds of abandoned bikes can be done up again and are much better value and quality than cheap new bikes. There’s a lesson for us all there.

It is good to see that a project we would praise were it to be in Belgium or the Netherlands, for example, is alive and well on our own doorstep. We all dump things much too quickly before investigating how much life they might still have. That applies to ferries, too. The Rosyth-Zeebrugge Superfast service is well worth saving from the scrapheap.
Any volunteers?