P&O Ferries has announced that it will axe its Larne to Troon ferry route with immediate effect.
In a statement released this morning, the company described the route as “loss-making” and revealed that it had come to the decision after a “comprehensive review of its options.”
Yesterday the Larne Times exclusively reported that the cut was likely to take place.
“P&O Ferries has proudly operated this additional seasonal route since 2003, but the stark reality is that the company is continuing to make significant losses, and sadly the income from ticket sales is not sufficient to cover the annual vessel and port operating costs,” said the statement.
“In a final attempt to make the route economic the company reduced the service in the off-peak months last year, whilst maintaining the full service in the peak months of July and August.
“Whilst this measure did significantly reduce the operating costs, the route remained loss-making.”
P&O said that since the last sailing at the end of September, it had continued to negotiate with a number of suppliers and other organisations, as well as searching for a lower-cost chartered fast-craft to be able to continue, but had been “unable to develop a solution for the company.”
The firm added that there would be no redundancies as a result of the move, with all permanent staff being found alternative roles within the company.
P&O also confirmed it will continue to operate its full Larne-Cairnryan route services “throughout 2016 and into the future.”
It stated: “For customers, the company has confirmed that in 2016 the P&O Larne-Cairnryan service will continue to operate up to seven sailings each way every day of the year, maintaining its reliable service for freight, tourist and domestic customers, on what is still the shortest and most frequent crossing between Northern Ireland and Scotland.”
The firm also plans to spend £500,000 on on-board improvements of its European Highlander and European Causeway vessels, and will add over 50 seats to each ship.
“The company believes that this decision will enable a more secure future for its employees and for its customers on the northern corridor,” the statement concluded.
East Antrim MP Sammy Wilson said that he was “disappointed” at P&O’s decision to discontinue the Larne-Troon service, which he described as “popular”, particularly with those travelling to Glasgow, as it cut down the distance to travel by road.
“I am aware that the company had been making efforts to secure a smaller, or more cost-effective ship for the route and unfortunately that has not been possible,” he added.
“The challenge for P&O now is to attract new business.
“There is an upturn in the economy but they will, of course, be in competition for any new business with the ports in Belfast and Warrenpoint and even Dublin.
“I am pleased that P&O has given an indication that they will continue to invest in the Larne-Cairnryan route by adding seats to accommodate more passengers, as well as upgrading facilities to make their ferries more attractive,” he concluded.
East Antrim DUP MLA Gordon Lyons added: “As someone who wants to see the development of the tourist and economic potential of the Larne area it is obviously disappointing to see the service between Larne and Troon being cut.
“Of course we want to maintain and increase the number of transport connections that we have, however it is clear that P&O need to make decisions based on the economic realities that they face and I welcome the actions that were taken to try to ensure the profitability of the route.
“Whilst this decision is not good news, I am pleased that the company is continuing to invest in the Larne-Cairnryan route and are improving facilities for passengers.
“This, along with the additional business that the Port of Larne had secured in 2015, demonstrates that the port will continue to be important to our local economy.”
East Antrim DUP MLA Alastair Ross described the loss as “regrettable” but welcomed an ongoing commitment to the Cairnryan route.
Mr Ross said: “It is of course regrettable that P&O will be discontinuing the Larne-Troon service but for some time now, despite the efforts of the company, the route has not been economically viable.
“I do welcome confirmation that there will be no redundancies and that the Larne-Cairnryan service will continue with upgraded vessels.
“With major investment in upgrading the A8 Belfast-Larne road completed recently tourist and freight routes into Larne are becoming more attractive
again, and I would hope that the Port can grow its business in the years ahead.”
East Antrim Alliance MLA Stewart Dickson commented: “This is a disappointing development for Larne and its harbour, however I do recognise that P&O is simply responding to the economic conditions which make the route unprofitable to run.
“Furthermore, P&O have informed me that they did make serious attempts to continue the route, through the procurement of lower cost chartered fast-
craft, but this has been unsuccessful.
“Nonetheless, I welcome P&O’s continued commitment to Larne, with £500,000 of investment being put into their Cairnryan-bound vessels over the next 18 months, as well as the development of new business in the Port of Larne.
“The Port is a vital gateway to East Antrim, and key to developing our industry through freight connections, but also by delivering tourists to our great attractions such as the Glens, the Gobbins Path and Carrickfergus Castle.”
East Antrim UUP MLA Roy Beggs said that he had hoped the recent A8 Larne to Belfast road would have secured the future of the Larne to Troon service.
“There has been concern in Larne for the future of the Troon service since the decision last summer not to renew the charter of the Express ship,” he stated.
“It had been hoped that an alternative vessel was being sourced, therefore it is very disappointing to learn that yet another ferry route from the Port of Larne has now been axed.
“With the upgrading of the A8 Larne to Belfast road, the Port of Larne is even more accessible for freight and tourists. I had hoped that this would have enhanced the prospects of the Troon ferry service, which I was aware was at risk.
“With the advent of low cost flights, there is overcapacity and significant competition on our links to Scotland. Regrettably P&O have taken the decision to cut the loss making Larne to Troon service.”
However, Mr Beggs said that he was “confident” about the Port of Larne’s long-term future.
“With P&O owning both the Port of Larne and the Port of Cairnryan and recently investing some £17m in upgrading the Port facility, I am confident that there is a long term future for the Port of Larne,” he continued.
“Larne-Cairnryan provides the shortest and most frequent sea crossing between Northern Ireland and Scotland.
The European Highlander and European Causeway vessels were purpose built for the route and will be receiving a further half million pounds of improvements over the next 18 months. A further 50 seats are being added to each ship before Easter of this year to assist in improving passenger comfort during peak periods.
“I am pleased that P&O have indicated that the Port of Larne is increasing its non-ferry Port activity and is starting to gain new business. This shows the potential for improved prospects for Larne Harbour.”
Despite P&O stating that there would be no redundancies as a result of the Larne to Troon service discontinuation, Sinn Féin MLA Oliver McMullan said that there was still “a great deal of anxiety” amongst employees and their families.
“It will come as a blow to the local area as it has been a fixture of life in the area for many years,” he stated.
“It will understandably create fears for the employees of the firm and their families and while management have assured me that there will be no redundancies, there is still a great deal of anxiety.
“The company has said all permanent staff have been found alternative roles and I have been in contact with the company to ensure that all staff are kept up to date on the latest developments.”
Mr McMullan said the decision could affect local tourism.
“This decision has wider repercussions for the local area as tourism is one of the main drivers of our local economy,” he continued.
“The withdrawal of this service will no doubt limit access to the Causeway Coast and Glens at a time when we are trying to open up the area with the A8.
“I will continue to engage with P&O Ferries in the coming days to ensure everything is done to protect the existing staff.
“I will also be meeting with the DETI minister to discuss these developments and stress the importance of promoting the tourism potential of the Causeway Coast and Glens area.”
Mayor of Mid and East Antrim Councillor Billy Ashe said that the axing of the route was “especially worrying” for the borough given imminent factory closures in Ballymena.
The council is coordinating a task force in conjunction with Stormont departments to deal with the losses.
Cllr Ashe said: “I know that this latest bad news on the loss of this important sea route from Larne to Great Britain will add further impetus to the ongoing work of the task force.”
However, Cllr Ashe welcomed the continuation of the Larne to Cairnryan service.
“That’s good news as it will maintain a service for freight, tourist and domestic customers,” he added.
“I am also heartened by assurances from the company that there will be no redundancies, with all permanent staff having been found alternative roles.”