Northern Ireland

New ferries but the end of the line for old port

Stena Voyager ferry
Image caption The HSS Voyager will make its last trip across the Irish Sea

New large ferries and a brand new £80m port are marking the end of a bit of marine history.

From Monday, cross-channel ferries from Northern Ireland will no longer sail to Stranraer in Scotland.

The need to shorten the route to save fuel and the demand for bigger ships means that the shallow channel down Loch Ryan to Stranraer is no longer viable.

It is the end of an historical link that lasted for around 150 years.

Stranraer became an official ferry port for Ireland in 1862 and its role was confirmed with the arrival of the railway line which eventually went all the way to the harbour.

It was appointed as an official Royal Mail port securing its future. In those days the ferries sailed to Larne in County Antrim.

But the rising cost of fuel and the need to use bigger ships have ultimately been its demise.

Stena Line, who use the port today, use the HSS, a huge high-speed ferry to augment smaller conventional ships.

Hit the bottom

But this had to go slowly when it entered the loch because of its wash and because of the shallow channel.

There is so little water at low tides that even the conventional ferries had to slow down or their sterns and propellers could hit the bottom.

For this reason the port was limited to smaller ships which have become increasingly uneconomical to use.

The HSS couldn't carry enough freight to make it pay. So it was time for a major change.

From the early hours on Monday, ships will no longer sail to Stranraer. Literally overnight it becomes a ghost port.

Instead, two new high-speed conventional ferries will sail to and from a new deeper water port further up the loch.

The new Loch Ryan Port which was built by Stena Line, is close to the mouth of the loch and this reduced the travel time.

It also means that the new ships can maintain full speed until the last minute. It shaves around three quarters of an hour off the journey from Belfast. It also saves fuel.

The new ships also have more capacity than the HSS and are the largest ever to sail the route. They boast automatic docking at the new port, allowing a faster turnaround.

Is there a chance they could ever be back in Stranraer? The new ships need a metre more water below them than the previous vessels so Stranraer isn't an option.

The town has had several years to get used to losing its ferry status. Many of those who work at the new port will live in Stranraer so the loss of the port in economic terms may not be that great to the town. But its focus has gone.

In travel terms, Stranraer is the end of the line. It no longer goes anywhere and with the end of the ferry business there are fears it could even lose its rail line.

But plans have already been hatched to turn the ship-free lower part of Loch Ryan into a boating mecca because of its sheltered waters.

It already has a new marina. Ironically, the shallow waters, now safe from large ships and ideal for marine-based leisure, could well provide Stranraer's future focus.

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