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New Ferry Operator Found for Rathlin Island 'Life-Line' Service

12th January 2023
A new ferry operator has been announced to resume the Rathlin Island ferry service which will secure the 'life-line' route to Ballycastle Harbour in Co. Antrim. In the background is Argyll and Bute in south-west Scotland.
A new ferry operator has been announced to resume the Rathlin Island ferry service which will secure the 'life-line' route to Ballycastle Harbour in Co. Antrim. In the background is Argyll and Bute in south-west Scotland. Credit: John Clarke Photo-facebook

Following the announcement to close the Rathlin Island ferry service off Co. Antrim due to "financial difficulty", a new ferry operator has been found to run the route to Ballycastle Harbour.

The final sailing by Rathlin Island Ferry Limited, which ran the route on behalf of the Department of Infrastruture was announced yesterday. This involved an afternoon sailing by the 6 vehicle/140 passenger car-ferry Spirit of Rathlin which departed from the mainland to Church Bay on the island.

The new owner is Dunaverty Limited which will first take over passenger-only ferry crossings from Friday. These 25 minutes crossings will run to a schedule of five return sailings a day.

As for resuming the vehicle ferry service which takes 40 minutes, this will operate once approvals are in put in place.

According to the Department for Infrastructure (DFI) after relevant approvals have been made with the Maritime and Coastguard Agency (MCA), a resumption to a full timetable of scheduled sailings would commence including the Department’s vehicle carrying vessel, the Spirit of Rathlin.

The new contract announced by the DFI to run the service was welcomed by Charles Stewart of Dunaverty Limited who also owns and operates Kintra Tours.  “I am delighted to have been awarded the contract to operate the ferry service between Rathlin Island and Ballycastle" and he looked forward to working with the Department of Infrastructure on what he described as a "lifeline service".

BBC News NI has more on the development to reinstate the Rathlin Island ferry route serving the 150 populated island which is four miles long and 2 and half miles mile wide on the east side of the island. 

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Jehan Ashmore

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Jehan Ashmore

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Jehan Ashmore is a marine correspondent, researcher and photographer, specialising in Irish ports, shipping and the ferry sector serving the UK and directly to mainland Europe. Jehan also occasionally writes a column, 'Maritime' Dalkey for the (Dalkey Community Council Newsletter) in addition to contributing to UK marine periodicals. 

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Ferry & Car Ferry News The ferry industry on the Irish Sea, is just like any other sector of the shipping industry, in that it is made up of a myriad of ship operators, owners, managers, charterers all contributing to providing a network of routes carried out by a variety of ships designed for different albeit similar purposes.

All this ferry activity involves conventional ferry tonnage, 'ro-pax', where the vessel's primary design is to carry more freight capacity rather than passengers. This is in some cases though, is in complete variance to the fast ferry craft where they carry many more passengers and charging a premium.

In reporting the ferry scene, we examine the constantly changing trends of this sector, as rival ferry operators are competing in an intensive environment, battling out for market share following the fallout of the economic crisis. All this has consequences some immediately felt, while at times, the effects can be drawn out over time, leading to the expense of others, through reduced competition or takeover or even face complete removal from the marketplace, as witnessed in recent years.

Arising from these challenging times, there are of course winners and losers, as exemplified in the trend to run high-speed ferry craft only during the peak-season summer months and on shorter distance routes. In addition, where fastcraft had once dominated the ferry scene, during the heady days from the mid-90's onwards, they have been replaced by recent newcomers in the form of the 'fast ferry' and with increased levels of luxury, yet seeming to form as a cost-effective alternative.

Irish Sea Ferry Routes

Irrespective of the type of vessel deployed on Irish Sea routes (between 2-9 hours), it is the ferry companies that keep the wheels of industry moving as freight vehicles literally (roll-on and roll-off) ships coupled with motoring tourists and the humble 'foot' passenger transported 363 days a year.

As such the exclusive freight-only operators provide important trading routes between Ireland and the UK, where the freight haulage customer is 'king' to generating year-round revenue to the ferry operator. However, custom built tonnage entering service in recent years has exceeded the level of capacity of the Irish Sea in certain quarters of the freight market.

A prime example of the necessity for trade in which we consumers often expect daily, though arguably question how it reached our shores, is the delivery of just in time perishable products to fill our supermarket shelves.

A visual manifestation of this is the arrival every morning and evening into our main ports, where a combination of ferries, ro-pax vessels and fast-craft all descend at the same time. In essence this a marine version to our road-based rush hour traffic going in and out along the commuter belts.

Across the Celtic Sea, the ferry scene coverage is also about those overnight direct ferry routes from Ireland connecting the north-western French ports in Brittany and Normandy.

Due to the seasonality of these routes to Europe, the ferry scene may be in the majority running between February to November, however by no means does this lessen operator competition.

Noting there have been plans over the years to run a direct Irish –Iberian ferry service, which would open up existing and develop new freight markets. Should a direct service open, it would bring new opportunities also for holidaymakers, where Spain is the most visited country in the EU visited by Irish holidaymakers ... heading for the sun!