Plan to axe Strangford ferry's final daily crossing angers businesses
Portaferry could face another serious setback if plans to cut the final ferry crossing of the day are put into action.
TransportNI is consulting on proposals to make a recently introduced early-morning sailing permanent, but it said it would have to offset this by dropping the last one of the day.
It would mean that, in the winter, the last sailing from Strangford on weekdays and Sundays would be 10pm instead of 10.30pm. And the last sailing from Portaferry would be 10.15pm, rather than 10.45pm.
TransportNI said the first sailing from Portaferry on weekdays at 7.45am was usually at full vehicle capacity. Since 2011, an additional 7.20am sailing - introduced during the annual refit of the MV Portaferry II ferry - has gone down well with commuters and the company is now looking at making it permanent.
"An extension of the ferry operating hours would result in an increase in operating costs and would require significant changes to the terms and conditions of employment of the ferry crews," a spokesman said.
"It has therefore been decided that an additional early sailing would have to be offset by cutting back the timetable."
While business owners welcomed the proposed crossing, they warned that cutting the final sailing would hit efforts to regenerate Portaferry, which is already reeling from the closure of the Portaferry Hotel and the wait for the reopening of Exploris.
Councillor Joe Boyle, who owns a chip shop, said the village's tourism industry could do without further damage. "We need to send the message that we're open for business and tourism - not just open until 10pm," he said.
Portaferry Regeneration said the late-night ferry service was needed to continue the momentum of the reopening of Exploris, rejuvenation of the construction industry and the forthcoming opening of arts centre Portico.
"We welcome the consultation's suggestion of an earlier ferry service to help get the people of the village to work, to school and for its businesses to service their customers," a spokesman said. "But we must also preserve the last ferry sailings at the weekends to ensure continued trade for the restaurants and pubs.
"The ferry service is vital to Portaferry's future, and any derogation of the service, or failure to address the overcrowded morning commuter service, will hamper the village's rejuvenation."
Celia Spouncer, who runs the Narrows Social guesthouse, said losing the late service would be a huge blow.
"This would be hopeless for communities trying to keep hospitality businesses going," she added. "Losing the last ferry will be a further constraint on developing hospitality and tourism in the area and will impact both Strangford and Portaferry."
While the arts centre Portico will open next year and will be holding concerts, film nights and more, heritage officer Dr Verity Peet said losing the last crossing would be a bar to growth.
"It is difficult to sell Portaferry as a destination for a good night out if visitors must rush back to the ferry at 10 o'clock," she said.
"At a time when Strangford Lough is trying to promote itself, closing down access to and from Portaferry on a Friday after 10pm seems counter-productive."