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April 5, 2022

Ferry frustrating

The sight of those ferries rusting away in Ferguson’s shipyard in Port Glasgow and the unfathomable explanations for how and why they ended up this way, feels like a depressing metaphor for the worst bits of how we deliver public services in this country. Centralised and remote decision-making that excludes service users from the design and delivery of the service. And the frequent and unfavourable comparisons with Norwegian ferries just adds to that sense of despair.  I don’t even live on an island so my frustration can be nothing compared to those who do. Lesley Riddoch nails it.  


Lesley Riddoch

LET’S talk ferries, because there’s no getting away from them.

No matter who signed the contracts and who is threatening whom with defamation actions, the two ferries languishing on the Clyde, five years late and massively over-budget are an embarrassment, a waste of taxpayers’ money and a wounding insult to marooned islanders.

But the procurement process went wrong long before the controversial contract awarded to Ferguson Marine and even before the SNP government revolutionised island travel with Road Equivalent Tariff (RET) in 2007, halving Hebridean ferry fares, but increasing competition for car deck places between locals and tourists.

The big problem appears to be CalMac itself and CMAL – the holding company created in 2006 to lease ferries to CalMac. This difficult duo has long designed its own ships, even though other ferry operators across the world have shifted to “off the peg” designs perfected by the shipyards that construct them.

According to one expert “the CalMac approach is like asking Ford to build a car you’ve designed when that’s their area of expertise. It doesn’t work and it may be no coincidence the last four shipyards CalMac have used to build their own ferry designs have all gone bust”.

What’s the design problem? It seems to be CalMac’s unshakeable conviction that big, “bath-tub”-style, monohull ferries – versions of the steamers first used by David MacBrayne in the 1870s – are still the only game in town. They’re not.

Back in 2008, Dumbarton-born Stuart Ballantyne was flown in from Australia to advise the new SNP Scottish Government on ferry design.

Ballantyne is a naval architect whose catamarans have been used in 47 countries. He’s highly rated by other maritime experts as the inaugural chairman of the worldwide ferry umbrella group Interferry and co-founder of the World Ferry Safety Association.

More importantly, though he designed the Pentalina, which has plied the choppy waters of the Pentland Firth since its founder Andrew Banks decided to break with tradition in 2009 and buy a 350-passenger catamaran with space for 58 cars. The company has since bought a second catamaran and offers more subsidy-free sailings to Orkney than the state-subsidised sailing from Scrabster. How?

According to the Orkney-based, retired professor of maritime businesses Alf Baird, it’s the catamaran design. “The operating costs are less than half of a CalMac ship – half the fuel, half the crew costs and half the capital costs.”

So why have these cheaper, more versatile vessels not even been considered let alone commissioned by CalMac/CMAL on the west coast?

After all, Norwegian companies use them on three-hour Arctic crossings. And the Pentland Firth is frisky enough.

Yet the two delayed ships on the Clyde and the two Islay ferries being built in Turkey are variations on the old “bathtub design” – like “triple-decker buses” with restaurant, catering and crew cabin decks stuck on top of the passenger deck.

Of course, the prospect of fresh fish ‘n’ chips is always appealing – but even if that doubles the physical size of the ferry?

CalMac/CMAL stands accused of designing over-large ferries that are too big to berth overnight in island ports – partly a function of CalMac’s determination to provide full restaurant facilities even on 50-minute crossings and partly because those crew members must sleep onboard overnight.

If their ferries were smaller catamarans, with less catering, based in island ports with crew able to live locally, none of that would be necessary. Lower costs would allow more crossings and the first sailing every day would take islanders to jobs, hospital appointments and onward travel – a simple change that could transform struggling island economies.

Except it won’t. Because CalMac won’t consider the catamaran or other designs that produce smaller easier to manoeuvre vessels which are cheaper and more ecologically friendly to run.

And that’s damaging island life.

Take Mull. According to maritime expert Roy Pedersen, an HIE official and the architect of RET – the current Mull ferry is “too big to berth overnight at Craignure, so the earliest mainland arrival is noon (for half the winter) and the last return boat is 4 pm. Hopeless”.

He invites instead to imagine “two efficient 80-metre catamarans, berthing overnight at Craignure, taking 80 cars apiece, with smaller crews who live locally. They could provide an hourly service from 6am till 10pm in summer and a two-hourly service in winter. That would revolutionise Mull’s connectivity and economy since crews and families would be based on the island.”

And, he calculates, “they would be cheaper in terms of state subsidy than the present set up”.

But that won’t happen if the decision stays with CalMac/CMAL.

OR take Islay. Two new CalMac ferries for the whisky island are now being built in Turkey.

Each will have 27 crew, 11 of whom will handle catering and sales.

A longer, open Atlantic crossing with less catering is made every day in Arctic Norway by a same-sized catamaran with a third of the crew.

And in Caithness the Pentalina packs in more crossings per day than any large CalMac vessel – with just half the crew. It cost £14m. The two Islay replacement ships will cost £110m.

But this argument isn’t just about price.

It’s about the awful possibility that the controversial ferries may be too big to dock reliably on their preferred routes – even when finally completed.

Take Arran. According to Roy Pedersen the new £30m terminal at Brodick is hard to use in easterly winds, while the terminal at Ardrossan involves a tight turn that may be hard to negotiate for the £100m Glen Sannox, currently languishing at Ferguson’s yard. Again, two catamarans, with their lower profile and superior turning capabilities, would resolve those potential problems.

Except they won’t. Because CalMac is dead-set against the catamaran design or indeed any other “off the peg” solution, the Scottish Government won’t intervene, islanders are excluded from the process (there are none on the CalMac Board despite protests) and experts are routinely ignored.

Which means Scotland has an outdated “our-way-or-the-highway” approach to ferry procurement that was meant to have gone out with the rubber sandwiches on British Rail.

It could be so much better.

Cycling around the Finnish Aland Islands one summer, I was stunned to discover relatively unpopulated islands with just a few hundred inhabitants and two different ferry routes – packing half a dozen sailings per day with a third of the car places reserved for locals.

Meeting Irish folk from the Aran Islands 15 years ago, I was equally stunned to hear they’d just bought their own ferry so the first daily journey would start from the islands – not the mainland.

That small change of direction has made a huge difference – the survival of the Aran Islands.

Meanwhile, the Scottish Government is spending millions on island bonds for wannabe islanders to reverse population decline, whilst overlooking the simple action of requiring CalMac to supply island-first ferries.

So, the big problem with those half-finished ferries in Ferguson Marine is not Derek Mackay’s signature or Jim McColl’s threatened lawsuit.

Neither ferry will transform their islands and neither will correct CalMac’s inflexible approach whereby islanders, ports, routes, timetables and island economies must all bend themselves out of shape to accommodate the company’s vessels – when it should be the other way around.

What next? If I had a magic wand I’d create an Island Citizens’ Assembly to hear evidence, decide the best design for the Mull, Arran, North Uist and Harris runs, decide if the ferries half-built and already ordered fit that bill or should be scrapped. I’d co-produce a new long-term ferry strategy with CalMac, or other operators, which is open to the use of catamarans and other ferry designs – all proofed by the lived experience of islanders. Yes, tomorrow is indeed April Fool’s Day. Ochone.