Northern Ireland

Portaferry-Strangford Ferry 'must sail earlier'

Strangford Ferry
Image caption Commuters say they cannot rely on the 07:45 GMT ferry sailing as it fills up too quickly

It's early morning, but for some in Portaferry it's not early enough.

When the first car ferry leaves the Ards Peninsula town bound for Strangford at about 07:45 GMT it's full - almost to capacity.

There are also dozens of foot passengers, including students heading to schools in Downpatrick and Ballynahinch.

They'll get on buses with their classmates in Strangford.

The sailing takes less than 15 minutes. On this day, it's smooth and cuts some 30 miles off the road trip to Downpatrick.

But some commuters are choosing to take the long way around.

Paul Coulter is the principal of St Patrick's Primary School in Ballynahinch. He said he cannot rely on the ferry to get him to work on time.

"In the morning, the 7.45 ferry is queued to capacity and unless you are in the line from 7.15 there is no chance of getting on," he said.

'A big gamble'

"There were situations where I might have arrived and, three days out of five, not got on.

"Getting off the ferry, I can be in Ballynahinch in 20 minutes. Compare that to about an hour and 15 minutes by road.

"But it's too big a gamble, so this last few months I've decided to drive by road."

Others have left their car on the County Down 'mainland' over night to ensure a morning crossing as a foot passenger.

Local SDLP councillor Joe Boyle recently put forward a motion at Ards and North Down Council calling on the Department for Infrastructure, which controls the ferry, to introduce an earlier sailing.

Image caption Joe Boyle said more people are driving the 30-mile round trip than using the ferry

"Basically, we are looking for a sailing from 7.15," he said.

"The reason for that is quite simple - we believe the people here need that service so they can get to their place of work on time.

"If you have agricultural equipment or lorries using the ferry, they take up more space and some people won't be able to get on.

"You have people using the road instead because they can't take the chance of not getting on."

He added: "It has been a regular occurrence that people from the village will leave their car in Strangford overnight.

"That's because they know they will get on as a foot passenger but they can't take the risk of taking the vehicle home and not getting it back on the next day."

Strangford queues

On the other side of the lough in Strangford, they're also unhappy.

At peak times, the scenic village grinds to a halt as ferry traffic queues up the Shore Road - despite an extensive and unused waiting area sitting nearby.

Despite its faded road markings, that area on Stella Maris Street is still clearly visible.

A motion recently passed at Newry, Mourne and Down Council called on the Department for Infrastructure (DfI) to address this. That motion was put forward by independent councillor Cadogan Enright

Image caption Cadogan Enright said it's "a scandal" that a queing area for cars in Strangford is going unused

"When the service first received planning permission they were required to build a queuing area and use it," he said.

"At the moment they are saying they can save on staff by not using the queuing area and this is causing a lot of congestion.

"People are also leaving their cars in Strangford overnight for fear of missing the early sailing and, of course, that can add to congestion here.

"This is a huge, well-made, well-appointed queuing area. It's a scandal that the ferry doesn't use it. It causes a huge inconvenience to the people of the village."

He added: "You can have traffic queued out beyond the 30mph zone. It means businesses are affected. Buses can't get in to pick people up or drop people off.

"It is entirely unacceptable and all on the basis that they are trying to save a few bob on staff costs."

In a statement, a DfI spokesperson said: "The department has received a motion passed by Ards and North Down Borough Council and has also been contacted by Newry Mourne and Down District Council regarding issues relating to the Strangford Ferry Service.

"The department has arranged a joint meeting with both councils at the end of January to discuss the issues raised."

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