OFT probe into Island Ferries
OFT, ABP and the fate of Cowes Express Ltd.
I remember approaching the OFT and the Monopolies and mergers commision back in late 1991, to try to prevent ABP from shutting us out of the port of Southampton (where they were the landlords)
We had, in a short period of time(and despite overcoming many technical and cash flow difficulties) finally taken over 50% of foot passenger traffic from ABPs in-house ferry company Red Funnel on the Cowes to Southampton route.
This was in early 1992 , just before our annual season tickets went on sale and hence the real prospect of a large cash input- I arrived for my duty aboard Wight King at Town Quay just as admiralty court officials were "nailing a writ to the mast" -actually sticking an arrest order with sticky tape to the GRP radar mast.
Basically ABP were claiming unpaid landing dues for the use of their terminal at Town Quay. We had to share this berth with the Hythe Ferry who made more trips per day than us. I do not have the exact figures ,but Hythe Ferries had to pay in the order of £15,000 pa and Cowes Express (who just happened to be competitors of Red Funnel) had to pay approx £500,000 per year!! We had decided to withold full payment of these landing dues pending legal review and had been corresponding with APBs legal department for some time.
Anyway we managed to lift the arrest and resume service within about 48 hours but the damage to our credibility had been done. Some may say that this was the last nail in the coffin due to a fundamentally flawed management but I always felt we could have survived - especially with the incredible support of employees, many of whom (myself included) continued working without pay to try to save the company!
Now without the hoped for cash input from the sale of season tickets, we struggled with cash flow trying to buy bunkers and spare parts and pay salaries while our directors tried to set up new finances. Sadly in Spring 1992 the service stopped for the last time and Red funnel could resume their monopoly on the Cowes - Southampton route again.
Around 2 years later the OFT produced their report (instigated at our request) highlighting the unfair practices and naming Cowes Express- but it was all too little too late.
I have nothing against the good people of Red Funnel especially those serving aboard- but however modern and sophisticated they may be now- try to remember back to 1989 when the last high speed ferry left Cowes at 1900 and you were lucky to get more than 1 car ferry after that and the state of the art tecnology were 1960s vintage hydrofoils that did not operate when visibility was less than a quarter of a mile or at busy times during cowes week.
I must not look back with bitterness- because Cowes Express was one of the best companies I ever worked for in all aspects- its just a shame that we couldnt stand up to big business interests.
I would be happy to hear more from anyone who remembers or was part of Cowes Express and appologies if some of my memories have suffered with the passing of time- but the essence of the tale is 100% correct and valid.
All the Best
I remember Cowes Express and did travel on the "Wight King" from Southampton several times and was quite impressed of the craft as I recall was built in Norway and was a Surface Effect Design.
I think they did have two craft for a few months before the service was suspended.
Hi B Wales!
Hope you enjoyed your short trips with Cowes Express. I cant believe it was nearly 20 years ago now- how time flies!
You were right about the craft, we actually had 3 ;
Sant' Agata later renamed Wight King- She was a Norwegian built Cirrus 120P Surface Effect Ship 330 pax and nearly 50 knots
Wight Queen Also a Cirrus 120P achieved 55 knots on sea trials and for a while was reputed to be the worlds fastest merchant ship
Wight Prince A Dutch built Seaswift 23 surface effect ship 99 pax and 36 knots
You have stirred up the grey matter, I think I need to dig up some old photos and start a new thread related to Cowes Express, There must be plenty of people who remember the service and maybe a few ex staff here on SN.
A pity, as Cowes Express was real competition for Red Funnell, the fares were realistic as well. If I remember correctley there was an evening return fare, for around £3.00? a bargain.
Just before the start of the feerry service, volunteers were wanted for the ships emergency lifeboat drill, apart from the wet feet, I think we were all given four? tins of beer.
Pity the service did not last
No referral to the Competition Commission for the ferry services on the IOW...
Only here for the beer
The £3 fare was imaginatively called the "midnight express" (long after our colleagues at Red Funnel were tucked up in bed I believe!)
I also remember the 4 or more cans for our volunteer "passengers" for the evacuation drills...you were right about Cowes Express' managements generosity with the beer- (None for us when on duty of course).
It also reminds me when we introduced the first "Business Class" on the cross solent route.
The idea was that we would serve drinks, with free newspapers and TV screens in the busineess class lounge on the upper deck complete with plush carpets and leather seats.
However we were advised that we had to suspend the sale of alcoholic beverages onboard because we didnt have a licence. So we solved that problem by giving it away for free!
You could pay a £5 supplement to upgrade to "Admirals Class" then be served unlimited complimentary drinks. We calculated that in the 20 to 25 minutes when the cabin staff could serve , the average passenger would consume less than a fivers worth. This was true 90% of the time although on one occasion a colleague reported that a stalwart passeger had managed to consume 8 bottles of Becks (about 1 every 3 minutes) I,m sure he couldnt work out later how he woke up on the Isle of Wight!
Appologies for getting off-thread here this is supposed to be about the OFT report- but it does illustrate the range of choice and alternatives that fair competition produces!
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