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by Gary Andrews

08.00 ex Larne, 15.30 ex Cairnryan - 25 March 2000.

With family commitments requiring a trip to Scotland, I had planned to travel to Cairnryan on Saturday 18 March.  Sadly on this occasion the PRIDE OF RATHLIN (always my first choice when travelling to Scotland) was fully booked with football supporters and I had to book on the JETLINER's 09.15 sailing ex Larne and 18.00 ex Cairnryan.

Sitting aboard a fully loaded JETLINER at around sailing time the Captain announced the cancellation of the sailing due to "technical problems".  It is unclear as to the nature of these "technical problems" as no further explanation was given.  It would appear though that any mechanical problem must have been fairly minor given the vessel had operated her first trip of the day satisfactorily and operated all subsequent roundtrips following the cancelled roundtrip (09.15 ex Larne/11.00 ex Cairnryan).  It has long been my belief that explanations for technical problems should be given as fully as possible to remove passenger speculation that there is any other reason
for a cancelled sailing.  Airlines have been known to cancel flights for "technical problems" when a crew member has failed to report for duty.

Along with a considerable number of football supporters, very inconvenienced I had to rather unhappily abandon my trip due to there being no guarantee of a place on a return sailing that night, due to a presumption that the JETLINER would not sail all day.  The whole event seriously lowered my opinion of P&O as a company and I am sad to say that I have never experienced such a poor level of customer service.  I am extremely disappointed to say that P&O displayed a "so what?" attitude to the whole incident with no regard to the level of disruption that their cancellation had and I think that is what disgusted me most with the experience.  Whilst, I accept my experience was that of one day and not necessarily reflective of operations generally, I'm afraid that if somebody has such a bad experience with an operator, they are unlikely to return.

With a total need to make that trip to Scotland I booked to travel again on 25 March - this time I was able to get a booking aboard the PRIDE OF RATHLIN 's 08.00 sailing ex Larne and 19.30 sailing ex Cairnryan.  I'm delighted to say that this trip was excellent and more of the standard one would expect from a famous brand name such as P&O.

Arriving at the port just after 07.00, following check-in, our party proceeded to the departure lounge at the PRIDE OF RATHLIN's Continental Quay berth.  Almost immediately we were allowed to board, being first the first passengers aboard.

Loading of vehicles soon began and quickly it was 08.00.  The Master welcomed passengers aboard and gave an estimated time of arrival of 10.05 in Cairnryan.  With the safety announcement being played we made a prompt departure from Larne at 08.00.  The vessel had very few passengers aboard though a group of Hearts supporters helped to increase numbers, making the trip to Edinburgh to see their team play Motherwell.  The dedication of football supporters always amazes me - now if only we could bottle that dedication and apply it to the economy.

With excellent conditions - a flat calm sea and the sun shining - it was a perfect crossing.

The PRIDE OF RATHLIN at 27 years old now looks rather "tired" and approaching retirement.  However, in my opinion she remains a first class way to travel.  Enjoying a well-cooked breakfast in the self-service cafeteria I just wondered how there could be a better way of travelling. The 'Rathlin feels like a ferry should, it may sound silly but she even smells like a ferry should.  An excellent standard of service, a comfortable vessel and a stylish way to travel - what more could you ask for?

Around 08.45 I took a walk on deck and noted the SEACAT SCOTLAND passing by astern heading North to Troon, whilst the STENA VOYAGER could be seen at a distance behind, bound for Stranraer.  The HSS later passed us.  Soon the EUROPEAN ENDEAVOUR could be seen passing us enroute to Larne from Cairnryan.

Before long we were walking off the gangway at Cairnryan.  Looking at my watch as I stepped aboard the bus transfer to the terminal the time had just hit 10.05, the advertised arrival time is 10.15.  Given the 'Rathlin's replacement, the EUROPEAN CAUSEWAY, is expected to operate the Larne -
Cairnryan route in 105 minutes, surely there will be a keen watch to see if she can offer an even more impressive crossing time.

At Cairnryan one is greeted by a port that offers little resemblance to that which one has been accustomed to for many years with a new terminal now open.  The old terminal has now been demolished and much of the new layout of the port is complete, though until the entire re-development is complete there will inevitably be a degree of disruption.  However, once completed there is little doubt that it will be very satisfactory.  

Foot passengers are now bussed to an arrivals area within the new terminal that includes baggage reclaim, immediately after this is the terminal reception area where passengers may be met by friends or family.

Having completed my business in Scotland (albeit one week later than planned!) it was time to return to Cairnryan.  Following check-in by a friendly and efficient member of staff we waited in the new departure lounge until bussed (along with the other foot passengers - two people and a dog!) to the 'Rathlin's gangway.  Security has been formalised a little more at Cairnryan with passenger baggage subject to search prior to passengers being permitted into the departure lounge.  Baggage may also be placed on a 'conveyor belt' to be reclaimed at Larne.

Once again the PRIDE OF RATHLIN was rather lightly loaded with a limited number of cars joining the foot passengers onboard.  Weekends can be rather quiet for the 'Rathlin if passenger numbers are low as the usually heavy freight loads of weekdays aren't present.

Around 19.30 the vessel's Captain, the PRIDE OF RATHLIN's Senior Master Jim McMullan, welcomed passengers aboard and the vessel departed the berth on schedule.

Once again a smooth crossing was had and a high level of service offered.

The vessel arrived in Larne on schedule with dis-embarkation commencing around 21.45.

The PRIDE OF RATHLIN does not have long left to run in our waters.  She is due to be replaced by the EUROPEAN CAUSEWAY this summer (the new vessel is expected to be in service by early August).  It is understood that the 'Rathlin is likely to be sold once the annual refit period is completed (which for the freight ferry fleet of P&O is traditionally carried out in July and August).  Whilst one is hoping that the EUROPEAN CAUSEWAY will offer an excellent means of crossing the North Channel, the charm of the 'Rathlin will be hard to capture.

Overall, I have to say that my trip with P&O was faultless.  There did appear to be a degree of confusion possible at the new terminal in Cairnryan, however, this is inevitable when such a major move has recently taken place and I have no doubt that given time such problems will be resolved.

The differences between my "attempted trip" and "actual trip" were unbelievable. On my "actual" trip I experienced a professional operation offering an excellent service, on my "attempted" trip I experienced a lack of any kind of professionalism and jokingly bad service.  P&O can clearly offer an excellent product however they must endeavour to ensure that every customer is as content as I was with my trip on the PRIDE OF RATHLIN.  With two new vessels joining the fleet in the coming months, P&O will arguably be best placed of all the North Channel operators to offer good service, it
would be hoped they play to the strengths displayed during my trip on the PRIDE OF RATHLIN.


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