The operators of a ferry that cuts almost nine miles out of a journey for motorists travelling across Dorset have been criticised for charging emergency services thousands of pounds in fares to use the boat.
Sandbanks Ferry’s chain-linked vessel takes cars and passengers on a 250 yard journey to Shell Bay on the Isle of Purbeck, cutting eight and a half miles out of a route around the peninsula.
For fire and ambulance crews travelling across from Poole – home to the nearest large hospital and full-time fire station – the thrice-hourly return service via the millionaire’s playground is a potentially life-saving shortcut.
But figures show the South Western Ambulance Service (SWAS) paid £21,599 in ferry fares travelling back and forth in the last two years, while Dorset and Wiltshire Fire and Rescue Service (DWFRS) has paid £4,261 in the last five.
For vehicles weighing more than 3,500kg – a weight category into which all NHS England-spec ambulances and fire engines fall – the current fare is £10.40, meaning a return trip would set back crews over £20 each time.
A fire engine boards the Sandbanks Ferry en route to a fire in Studland in August 2022 – for which it will have been charged
The chain-link ferry makes a 250-yard journey across the water to the Isle of Purbeck, saving eight and a half miles
And on average, it would suggest ambulance crews were using the floating bridge for a return journey an average of 10 times a week – and fire crews between three and four times each month.
The nearest hospital to Swanage – the largest town on Purbeck – is 20 miles away in Poole. By using the ferry the journey is 12 miles.
And the majority of fire stations around rural Dorset are on-call – with the nearest full-time station in Poole, meaning reinforcements may be called in for major incidents.
Ferry operators have an agreement in place with the emergency services to hold the transporter if crews are en route to attend an emergency on the Isle – later invoicing them for the trouble.
But the operators of the ferry are not allowed to charge the police due to a quirk in a 100 year old law.
The figures were obtained by Swanage resident Philip Eades using the Freedom of Information Act.
Mr Eades said: ‘It seems incredible that the Sandbanks Ferry Company would charge any of the emergency services for the work they do in protecting the residents of and visitors to the Isle of Purbeck.
‘The ambulance service is being charged for taking people from here to hospital, because we’ve only got a little hospital here.
‘Given the levels of profit made by the ferry company over the years I would call on the management to refund the Fire and the Ambulance Service and not charge any of the emergency services in future.
‘People are shocked. I’m sure that nobody knew they were being charged.’
The ferry is operated by private enterprise group Fairways, based in Essex – though the Bournemouth Swanage Motor Road and Ferry Company itself was established by an act of Parliament in the 1920s.
The operators of the Sandbanks Ferry said it is governed by that act, The Bournemouth-Swanage Motor Road and Ferry Act 1923, which states they are unable to charge the police, but has no mention of the other emergency services.
But locals have called for an amendment to be made to the law so fire and paramedic services are granted the same charity.
The ferry makes a return journey across the water three times an hour – with fares ranging from £5.20 one-way for cars to £10.40 for heavier vehicles and buses
Standard NHS England-spec ambulances and fire engines weigh in excess of 3,500kg – pushing them into the heavier vehicle category and the higher fare
Jane Tavinor said: ‘The crossings should be free as a gesture of goodwill as this company hold us to ransom being the only way to avoid a lengthy drive around and delays accessing A&E at Bournemouth and fire engines coming to help. These are life-savers and a private company is profiting.’
Jane MacAuley posted on social media: ‘It is appalling that they charge emergency services. Understandable if it is normal movement of people to and from appointments but surely there should be a concession for emergency traffic.’
Damien Bence, Dorset and Wiltshire Fire and Rescue Service area manager, said: ‘Due to the geography and location of our fire stations, it can sometimes be a more effective approach to utilise the ferry in order to provide quicker access for our appliances.
‘The Sandbanks Ferry support this response by working with our service control centre to ensure the ferry is held at the relevant access point.
‘The company will invoice in line with their standard vehicle toll for all occasions when the fire service utilise their ferry as part of an emergency response.’
Last week, the operators of the Sandbanks Ferry Company warned it would have to raise its tolls in order to stay in business.
The ferry company is requesting the Department for Transport for permission to replace it with annual increases based on the Consumer Prices Index (CPI).
The change would mean car fares initially increasing from £5.20 to £5.97.
MailOnline has contacted the operator and SWAS for further comment.