Scottish Canals Crisis as Hire Boat Operator Quits

There maybe no hire boats on Scottish Canals after 2017 as the main operator says it is being forced to close due to licensing increases and changes to Falkirk Wheel operations. Capercaillie Cruisers say their ‘relationship with Scottish Canals has broken down’ and they no longer have ‘any confidence about growth or long term sustainability’.

In their 22nd March statement Capercaillie Cruisers said they had been providing narrowboat holidays on the Lowland Canals since 2003, following the re-opening of the canals and the development of the Falkirk Wheel (below). The holiday boat fleet consists of Capercaillie owned boats and a franchise operation with ABC, Black Prince and Marine Cruises companies. Over the last 8 seasons the company has developed and grown the business from 16 to 21 boats, has become recognised as a provider of excellent customer service and increased profitability.

Falkirk Wheel

The Inland Waterways Association has written to Scottish Canals expressing deep disappointment at the announcement from Capercaillie Cruisers. As Capercaillie Cruisers is also the operating agent for the ABC and Black Prince fleets based at Falkirk, this will mean the end of the entire hire boat operation on the Forth & Clyde and Union canals. In IWA’s view this is very bad news for the future of these canals, as it will significantly reduce the number of boat movements and mean that very few people will now be able to experience boating on these restored waterways. IWA believes that boats are an essential part of the waterways and that the Scottish canals need more boating activity, not less. It appears that there is a large gap between what Scottish Canals wishes to charge and what Capercaillie Cruisers and potentially other operators believe they can pay, and IWA has asked Scottish Canals to reconsider its position.

Scottish Canals in response said it ‘will do all it can to ensure a hire boat fleet remains on the Lowland Canals and if Capercaillie is determined to leave, we will negotiate a deal with the operators in England so they can continue providing a holiday boat offering on the Union and Forth & Clyde Canals. Under this agreement, we anticipate being able to secure the existing jobs provided by Capercalllie and ensure that the economic impact of Capercaillie’s departure would be minimal.’

IWA also said it was concerned to hear that Scottish Canals is still progressing the concept of the Rotate project. As stated in IWA’s response to Scottish Canals’ Pricing Consultation in 2016, IWA disagrees with the proposal for a static pontoon to be fitted to one of the caissons of the Falkirk Wheel, leaving just one caisson for use by the trip boat and any other boats wishing to travel between the two canals. While accepting that Scottish Canals wishes to optimise income from tourists, IWA believes that increasing the number of boats on the canals, for example through additional trip boat operations, sustainable hire boat businesses and more opportunities for people to get afloat affordably, is the most effective way to achieve its tourism revenue objectives. IWA has asked Scottish Canals to ensure that the Rotate project will not affect the use of the wheel by either hire boats or private boats, as that would be contrary to the original purpose of the Falkirk Wheel as a millennium project to link the two restored canals.

IWA has called on Scottish Canals to urgently reconsider its position and adopt a long term strategy which aims to increase all forms of boating on its waterways. Restricting the use of the Falkirk Wheel and the closure of hire boat companies is not the way to achieve this.

Source: Capercaillie Cruisers, IWA, Scottish Canals news releases

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