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Moaning about the price of Solent crossings is a national sport on the Isle of Wight.
“It’s often mooted that mile for mile, the Solent is the most expensive stretch of water to cross in Europe and … it’s quite believable.” On The Wight
“It has long been contended The Solent is the most expensive stretch of water in the world to cross” David McKinley, IWCP letters
“The Solent is one of the most expensive stretches of water in the world.” Jane Knight, The Independent
“If I remember correctly, the Solent is the most expensive stretch of water to cross in the universe. or something.” Tank Girl, Urban75 Forums
I have often heard this repeated, but, having been on many other ferries, I still have my doubts. So I thought I’d check up on the figures – read on to see my results.
The claim I am interested in is that crossing the Solent ‘costs more per mile than any other stretch of water’. I wanted to find out how true that was. I also realise it’s not the only way or even the best way to calculate value for money in ferry pricing, but this was the particular one I chose to look at.
I’ve got no professional connection or interest in ferry crossings at all, other than as a regular customer. I undertook this exercise purely out of curiosity.
Picking the prices to compare was hard, as there were many to choose from and many variations from place to place. I had to make some rules to try to make it fair. I chose the cost of a return foot passenger, before any discounts, as all ferries offer this service. I chose to take the cost of a crossing at or soon after midday in August/September 2016 (as that was when I was doing the research), returning as soon as possible. I disregarded any seasonal or daily fluctuations because it would have been impossible to make sensible comparisons between services which change prices daily or seasonally; and those which do not. Where different classes of travel were offered I chose the standard one. Where these could not be determined I made my best guess, always choosing a cheaper fare if possible. The variation in ferry prices on some routes is likely to make this exercise hard to repeat and get exactly the same results.
I disregarded any free ferries (there were very few of these) or ferries that do not publish their tariff on the internet. I included all the Solent crossings, and all the ferry crossings I could find in this region, plus an arbitrary selection of other crossings starting in the UK, including those going to foreign countries. I tried to find crossings of varying lengths to test the theory that price was connected to distance travelled; so I sought out short crossings and long ones. I measured the ferry distances using Google Maps and approximate routes. Actual distance travelled may be different, especially over longer distances. I focused on UK crossings but also sampled a few outside the UK to see if they were very different (some were, so for my final dataset I excluded crossings that did not include the UK*). I also tried to include a number of chain ferry crossings because I wanted to compare the pricing of Cowes Floating Bridge too.
I’m an ecologist, not a mathematician. So somebody better experienced than me will be able to use the data more effectively and find my mistakes. The raw data is available for download at the bottom of this post.
This bar graph shows the cost, per kilometre, of a return crossing. Solent crossings are highlighted in blue. The Cowes Floating Bridge is shown in yellow.
Solent crossings are in the middle of the chart for cost. Cowes Floating Bridge is fairly high up the list though, but neither come close to either the Hayling Ferry or the Norfolk-based Reedham Chain Ferry, both of which could safely claim to be among the most expensive crossings in the UK per mile.
- Per mile, the Solent is not the most expensive piece of water to cross even in the Solent area. So it is definitely not the most expensive in the world.
- Solent crossings do not stand out as particularly expensive, nor as particularly cheap.
- There appears to be a link between the length of crossing and price.
Extra investigation: the relationship between distance and price
Looking at this data, an important factor in ferry pricing, perhaps the most important, seems to be the length of the crossing. Longer crossings usually cost less per mile than shorter ones. In fact, the perceived injustice of this natural order being upset is what leads to the mistaken complaints about the Solent being so expensive ‘per mile’.
I looked further into this relationship. If the same data is presented differently, an apparent link can be seen. In this graph, both axes are logarithmic, which has the effect of straightening out the line of best fit. It shows that all the services in my dataset fall fairly close to a line. It also allows us to predict what the actual cost of a ferry crossing might be from the distance covered; if that crossing was also on this same line. We can visually compare how certain ferry services charge more per mile than might be expected for the distance they cover; and some charge less. Notably, the Solent crossings are all fairly close to the best fit line. The Cowes Floating Bridge is one of the furthest away; suggesting that even taking into account the fact that it crosses a short distance, it is still a relatively expensive journey.
The longest journey in the data is the Southampton to New York cruise (far right point). Choosing this was difficult given the wide range of cruise prices, but I chose a return voyage at a standard rate. I had expected that to be far off the chart for price, but amazingly it is pretty close to the line. Understandably it is higher than the expected level, possibly because the facilities on board are significantly better than a ferry, but nonetheless it is interesting to see that the price for a cruise is not dissimilar to that of a normal ferry anywhere else – albeit over a hugely longer distance.
If you want to have a go, there are some obvious next steps for this analysis. Firstly, the dataset could be made larger, and maybe include some truly international routes. There are plenty of other ferry services not on the list. If there are any that are wildly different in price from the predicted levels shown in Figure 2 then it would be very interesting to see why. I excluded the international routes I found because I had difficulty comparing the data sometimes, and I also was not certain that comparing prices between currencies was fair. Others will understand this kind of thing better than me.
Secondly, the same exercise could be done for vehicle travel. That would have a smaller dataset, but it would be useful to see how it compared.
Finally, some consideration could be given to known levels of public subsidy, to find out whether services which are subsidised are actually cheaper than commercial ones. This issue was partly addressed by a study in the Scottish Western Isles (Greig 2005).
This is the raw data file as a XLSX file. You are welcome to download it and use it for any purpose, but please, if you do refer to it or publish anything based on it, refer to this post and to me, Matthew Chatfield. Thanks!
- Greig, Malcolm and McQuaid, Ronald W (2005) The impact of ferry services on an island economy. In: European Regional Science Association Conference)
- The most expensive ferry in the world: a comparison of the cost of Scottish ferries to cross-Solent ferries was undertaken by Neil Kay, Emeritus Professor in the Economics Department, University of Strathclyde in January 2011
*I accidentally left in the Sydney Harbour Ferry in the graph. Sorry. Just checking to see if you were paying attention.