The not very encouraging view from Arran

As islanders, we are used to occasional weather-related disruption to our ‘lifeline’ ferry services, particularly in winter. Indeed, this is simply a part of island life.

By The Newsroom
Friday, 21st January 2022, 7:29 pm
The new ferries are already five years behind schedule. Pic: John Devlin.
The new ferries are already five years behind schedule. Pic: John Devlin.

However, when you combine that with a fleet where the majority of its vessels are well past their original design lives, ageing infrastructure at the ports, and a global pandemic, we now have a ‘perfect storm’ of disruption.

Islanders are unable to reliably travel to work, to make urgent medical appointments, or simply visit friends or relatives. Supplies and trades cannot get to the island in a timely manner, staff cannot commute, and the many wonderful island producers cannot get their goods reliably to market.

Maintaining key supplies of fuel and food has become a complex daily logistical challenge. The significant effects impact every element of life on the island. Barely a conversation is held where the ferry does not feature heavily.

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There are many perfectly viable businesses that may not make it out of this winter and many residents are reconsidering their futures on the island. While I write this from the Isle of Arran, this is a story echoed up and down the islands of the west of Scotland.

The main ‘lifeline’ ferry route between Ardrossan and Brodick has seen multiple cancellations and from last week reduced to a single small boat with around half of the capacity of the principal vessel, MV Caledonian Isles. The berth in Ardrossan is in a poor state of repair with the vessel often unable to berth overnight. We have seen protracted delays to redevelopment of Ardrossan harbour and the recently built pier at Brodick is hopelessly compromised. There appears to be no end in sight for the disruption.

The CalMac crews on the vessels and the port staff on the ground are doing all they can to make the broken system work, including often going ‘above and beyond’ to deliver vital services, but they cannot work miracles.

The entire network is hanging by a thread, literally operating on a sailing-by-sailing basis on all routes from Lewis in the North, Cumbrae in the East, Arran in the South, and Barra in the West. Sailings are being cancelled right up to the point of departure. The effects are being felt the length and breadth of the Clyde & Hebrides ferry network. Meanwhile, we hear nothing from our constituency MSPs or indeed the Scottish Government Transport Minister or Islands Minister.

Passengers are hampered by an outdated booking system that gives no priority to islanders. In peak periods, and increasingly becoming a problem across the year, it is near-impossible to access sailings at short notice with a car. This effectively discriminates against Islanders who are unable to book many weeks in advance to travel for essential work or family reasons, or more importantly, to access critical health care appointments at the mainland hospitals.

If you are lucky enough to get a booking, you are still at risk of late cancellation and the stand-by systems also give little priority to all but the most urgent scenarios. The islands of the West of Scotland need a reliable ferry service for their very existence, and the current system is simply failing to deliver.

The complex tripartite body of CalMac Ferries Ltd, Caledonian Maritime Assets Ltd (CMAL), and Transport Scotland refuse to consider alternatives to the fundamental methodologies that underpin how our lifeline ferries are procured and operated.

We are of course still awaiting the delivery of our long-delayed new vessel Hull 801/Glen Sannox. Originally scheduled to be in service in 2018, the current estimate suggests an ‘achievable but challenging’ delivery of late September 2022. There are significant risks outlined in the most recent update from Ferguson Marine with possibly the most concerning being an ‘unquantifiable risk that equipment problems may emerge during commissioning’ of machinery that has been idle for four years or more. Fingers crossed, then….

Her sistership, Hull 802, is earmarked for the Uig Triangle and appears to be a long way from being ready to launch in August. Then there is the remarkable discussion about fitting the significant additional ‘ducktail’ hull feature, a mere six years after the hull lines were developed. This has potentially huge implications for the delivery schedule for this vessel.

To our friends in the north, I would say – this is no minor matter and needs a great deal more detail and explanation than was provided, almost as an aside, in Mr Hair’s valedictory report.

The ducktail will add 2.5 metres to the length of 802. Once you start doing that, you are basically re-designing the hull lines, altering the displacement, and therefore the performance of the vessel.

The more I read, the more I have to ask what on earth has been going on?

It would appear to this slightly trained eye that the purpose of the ducktail will be to be to ensure the vessel can meet its contractual powering and speed targets, or to address a possible trim or stability issue.

Which makes me wonder why this wasn’t considered for 801? Or if it was, have we now basically given up on 801 meeting the performance specification?

Will 801 be able to meet the contract specified service speed of 16.5 knots, at a draft of 3.4m, and with a power requirement of 2 x 2600kW at 750rpm? And why are we still ‘discussing’ it for 802? These are now – literally – the £300 million pound questions.

The addition of a 2.5 metre ducktail to the transom of 802 will have a few other significant impacts. It will shift the Centre of Gravity of the vessel a little further aft from the original design, likely increase the displacement, and could well cause some trim issues.

It will also probably require a longer stern ramp to avoid interaction between the linkspan and the vessel’s now-extended hull…. And this may alter the requirements for the harbours that are being modified right now in Tarbert and planned for Uig this winter.

The impact on the delivery schedule of 802 could be significant, given this vessel is partially fabricated on the launching ways at Fergusons, with the stern gently lapping in the high tide.

A launch this August already looks optimistic and is apparently somewhat technically challenging as the vessel could be significantly over the original design launch weight.

All of these questions need answering. Or is it now the unspoken policy of the Scottish Government to blunder on, regardless of cost or implications for island communities, with their fingers crossed that when the ducktails are fitted and the linkspans constructed - at further massive cost to the public purse - the great plan will all come together?

And that is before we get into the subject of dual fuel with its own complex set of issues for powering these vessels in a consistent way.

The current Scottish Government Cabinet structure separates the Transport portfolio (which obviously includes ferries) from the Islands portfolio and this distinction appears deeply flawed.

This was exposed clearly at Rural Affairs and Islands Portfolio Questions in Holyrood on Thursday 13th January. MSPs attempted to highlight the critical connectivity issues to our islands, and Islands Minister Mairi Gougeon MSP simply refused to address them as they are beyond the scope of her portfolio.

How much do we bet that at the next Transport Portfolio Questions, the Minister Graeme Dey MSP refuses to engage on the social and economic impacts of the disruption to our lifeline services?

The lack of islander representation on the Board of Directors of key agencies involved in the delivery of our lifeline services including Calmac and CMAL is yet another example of a fundamental disregard for the opinion of our island communities in shaping the services that we depend on.

The shifting of Erik Ostergaard from leading the CMAL Board to that of CalMac Ferries is certainly an interesting appointment. Perhaps this is pre-judging the imminent findings of the Scottish Government commissioned report into the complex relationship between Transport Scotland, CMAL and CalMac, the so-called ‘Project Neptune’.

But even when our local MSPs have seats on important bodies in order that they may represent their constituents, such as the Ardrossan Harbour Task Force, they fail to attend. Meanwhile, the community voice is ignored or excluded.

There are some network-wide representative groups – one even appointed by the Board of Directors of David MacBrayne Ltd as part of their contractual obligations – which show little interest in biting the hand that feeds them and offer limited feedback to the communities they are supposed to speak for.

An independent movement that brings all west coast islands together is long overdue. We need change, and that change must come quickly.

In 2019, there was initial interest in convening a meeting of all the island user groups but this fell away once the pandemic struck.

However, a lot has happened since then which confirms not just the seriousness of the issues that island communities face – and will continue for years to come – because of the ‘catastrophic failure’ of the current set-up, but also of how much we have in common.

There has been some early contact between Arran and other islands, particularly Mull and Harris, to move this forward.

It is high time the Clyde and Hebridean Islands joined together in an independent network-wide alliance to focus on our common issues and take our voice to Holyrood. Let’s make it happen.

(Arran Ferry Action Group is a community lobbying group, set up to represent Arran interests in demanding service improvements and accountability in future investment decisions. See www.arranferries.scot.)