WITH GREAT FANFARE, the Scottish government announced recently it would spend £1bn over the next ten years to build 23 new ferries to serve our islands. Nevertheless, islanders themselves may well be skeptical. The government’s last great scheme to build just two new ferries, is already at least £150m over its original £49m contract price, and two years late. Some marine experts have stated frankly that the ships — more rusting hulls, as they languish in a Clyde shipyard — are not fit for purpose and should be scrapped, with private operators being invited in to fill the gaps.
And those gaps are all too familiar to the islanders whose lives and livelihoods depend on having reliable ferries. The government’s wholly-owned subsidiary, Caledonian Maritime Assets Ltd (CMAL) owns three dozen ferries, most of which it leases to the ferry operator, Caledonian MacBrayne (CalMac). CalMac is again wholly-government-owned. The fleet is an average of 23 years old, when the maximum working life of a Scottish ferry is reckoned at 25 years.
MV Caledonian Isles, serving Arran — by far the busiest route — is already past that limit, as its frequent delays and breakdowns testify. In fact, more than 1000 CalMac sailings were cancelled in 2019 because of mechanical problems, up 37 per cent on the year before. As things worsen, ferries are shifted from one route to another to fill the holes. It is hardly a reliable service.
To complete the Scottish government’s monopoly stranglehold on island travel, it now owns the yard that is building the two new ships, along with the piers and port facilities that are needed to dock. Some cynics say that the plan to demolish Brodick’s old pier — “Nothing wrong with it,” says a naval friend of mine — is more about killing off potential competition, rather than aesthetics or maritime safety.
Indeed, the piers have been built around existing CalMac vessels, rather than being built flexibly to allow for different — and different people’s — ships to berth. Still, a recent test confirmed that the 70m catamaran MVPentalina, purchased by the private company Pentland Ferries to operate between Caithness and Orkney, could in fact berth at Brodick’s (hugely expensive) new pier with just a bit of jiggling.
Of course, it’s not going to happen. The RMT union is implacably opposed and has made it plain that Pentland would have to pay the inflated CalMac wages and accept all sorts of expensive ‘health and safety’ restrictions. So, Pentland have pulled out. It’s sheer protectionism, and bad for Arran islanders, but CalMac and the RMT hate the idea of competition and CMAL and the Scottish government can’t admit they were wrong.
But they were. Much of the delay on the two still-unfinished ships was because ministers wanted to flaunt their ‘green’ credentials so commissioned ‘dual fuel’ vessels that could run on marine diesel or liquified natural gas (LNG) — not that the ‘dual fuel’ technology had been used anywhere in the world or any of the 23 islands served by CalMac have anywhere to store LNG in any case. It’s a case of politics trumping common sense.
For the same political reasons, the two ships had to be built on the Clyde instead of from specialist ferry builders in, say, Korea — or Canada, where Seaspan Shipyards build and service ships for a ferry network far larger than Scotland’s. The political decision to build locally seriously reduced the options and raised the costs. The inevitable specification changes involved in new technologies brought disputes and stand-offs, commercial disaster for the yard, nationalisation and a new government-appointed CEO with no shipbuilding experience.
It’s a common view among shipping experts that the two ‘Glen Class’ vessels have serious design faults and will never provide reliable service. The bulbous bow on the Glen Sannox is supposed to reduce fuel consumption on long passages, for instance. But the ship is intended for short passages, and the bow might even prevent it from operating a roll-on, roll-off service (bad news especially for caravan owners, who find it hard to reverse). All in all, islanders will not be getting the “first class sustainable ferry services to communities, stimulating social and economic growth” that they were promised by the Scottish government way back in 2012.
Nor is there any fresh thinking about how to provide such a service. The hulls now gently oxidising in Ferguson’s yard are just bigger, more lumbering versions of what CalMac has built before. But do ferries running trips of just 60 or 90 minutes really need space-guzzling dedicated bars, cafes and restaurants? Not many commercial ferry operators seem to think so: they have found better ways.
Would small ships be more flexible in berthing anywhere that changing circumstances demand? That seems pretty obvious. And what about catamarans? Private ferry companies run catamarans because they are simpler in design and consequently much cheaper to build — and run, needing a third of the crew of a typical CalMac ship and using a third of the fuel. A medium speed catamaran might set taxpayers back £20m. Add on running costs and the total comes to around £70m over its 25-year life. CalMac’s new ships will each cost £110m+, making the total cost over 25 years around £250m. Maybe that is why the private Pentland Ferries and Western Ferries have prospered while the heavily subsidised CalMac fails to provide a reliable service?
The Scottish government has been notoriously reluctant to disclose information about the Ferguson ferries fiasco. Its own version of events is so finely spun that any spider would be proud of it. As for the future? Does anyone really believe that a government that cannot build just two ships can seriously deliver 23? Or do it in time and on budget? Or actually find the £1bn budget in the first place?
Ferries are an economic and social lifeline to tens of thousands of people in often quite fragile communities. It needs to be got right, for the whole country’s sake. But while the state monopoly over ferry provision lasts, that will not happen. It is not fit for purpose. It brings politics (and with it, blame-shifting) into every stage, from design through building to operation, leading to bad project management and wasted money.
Islanders need a responsive and reliable ferry service based on competition, choice, innovation and enterprise. They won’t get it, because the politically backed crony incumbents always see it off. Maybe moving to the mainland is a better idea. How sad.