Shots fired across ferry factions’ bows

Islay's two new CalMac ferries will operate in the busiest route on the Clyde and Hebrides network. The 95 metre long vessels will have the capacity of 275-lanemeter for HGVs on the main deck, and a total of 107 cars on both main and hoistable decks. They will increase the freight and vehicle capacity on the Islay and Jura routes by 40 per cent, while reducing the carbon footprint thanks to its diesel/hybrid propulsion system.

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When one of CalMac’s ageing ferries is due for scrap, should it be replaced by a bigger ferry, or by two smaller ones?

This question has triggered a war of words between Mull and Iona Ferry Committee (MIFC), and Scotland’s national owner of the CalMac fleet and ports, Caledonian Maritime Assets Ltd (CMAL). Their fighting talk looks set to intensify.

‘They need to build bridges with us, not the other way round,’ CMAL’s CEO Kevin Hobbs told The Oban Times. ‘We haven’t been going to the press throwing stones at them every other month.

‘Unprofessional, distasteful, disrespectful, vexatious. Absolutely unbelievable.’

The spat started in March, when CMAL awarded a contract to build Islay’s two new ferries to a shipyard, Cemre. With Mull and Iona next in line for a ferry replacement, MIFC launched its own investigation into CMAL’s procurement process.

MIFC asked why one of CalMac’s new Islay ferries was ‘twice the price’ of a similar Norwegian ferry at the same shipyard. ‘The 801/2 fiasco is an extreme symptom of a dysfunctional ferry procurement process that designs in waste, complexity, and high cost,’ MIFC argued. ‘It is being repeated again in the vessels for Islay.’

Hitting back, CMAL called this claim ‘misleading’ and ‘inaccurate’. ‘They are completely different ships,’ Mr Hobbs said. ‘I don’t think £32.5 million versus effectively £44.5m is double the price. Somebody needs to go back to school and do the maths.

‘We are not fools. We deal in facts. We don’t deal in fiction. We deal in the realisation of operating in Scottish waters, not the urban myth of “it must be the same as Norway”. Absolute nonsense.’

MFIC deemed CMAL’s decision-making ‘deeply flawed’. ‘They have dogmatically obstructed innovation,’ they argued, ‘and their “consultation” has been deceptive, biased and pre-judged’.

‘CMAL and CalMac have for many years been criticised by islanders and industry experts for responding to growing traffic not by increasing the number of vessels, but by making each new vessel larger and larger.

‘CalMac/CMAL/Transport Scotland (the decision-making is shared between all three agencies) have repeatedly opted for a small number of ever-larger ferries. This is a failing strategy.’

As an example, MIFC gave the MV Loch Seaforth, delivered in 2015, which replaced two ships. ‘Now, despite having the youngest vessel in the fleet, the Ullapool-Stornoway service shares with Craignure-Oban the crown of ‘most congested’ route in the CalMac network.

‘That the vessel should reach capacity so soon in its life demonstrates the error of the ‘one big boat’ strategy. The six-week long breakdown in 2021 demonstrates the fragility of a service that relies on a single vessel.’

As another example, MIFC gave Hull 802, replacing the MV Hebrides from Uig to Harris and North Uist. ‘She will bring a vehicle capacity increase of 40 per cent, but little else,’ MIFC said.

‘To accommodate this huge vessel, all three ports of Uig, Lochmaddy and Tarbert are having to be deepened and enlarged for further tens of millions of pounds – and in the process Uig will be closed entirely for six months.

‘It looks like the same strategy as deployed for Loch Seaforth and 802 is being applied again to Islay. Mull and Iona are next in line.’

What’s more, MIFC said a CMAL consultation last year showed ‘errors, assumptions, misrepresentations and omissions that heavily skew the outcome away from choosing two small ferries, and toward one single large one’.

However, CMAL’s CEO hit back, saying: ‘complete and utter load of rubbish.’

Does CMAL favour one big boat? ‘No. Not at all,’ Mr Hobbs said. ‘We ask CalMac what their statement of requirements is – the metrics they require to satisfy the current demand and future demand. That comes to us as a package directly from CalMac, in collaboration with Transport Scotland.

‘This is not a CMAL issue at all. We will build what is required. We are not influencing this in any respect whatsoever.

‘I don’t think we need to build bridges. It’s up to them to speak to the operator who are the people providing the service.

‘We believe we are making the right decisions. We have the necessary skills, expertise, and qualification to do what we do,’ Mr Hobbs said.

‘People that have got 30, 40 years’ worth of experience, times multiple people, versus somebody who happens to live on an island and believes they know it all – with not one ounce of professional qualification behind them.

‘We will now be proactively on our website, whenever we are called out by this committee, putting stuff up ourselves to say: ‘Look, this is what you’re hearing from people that don’t know – this is actually the truth of it.’

CMAL earlier stated: ‘This “investigation” contains highly misleading comments and a narrative that is patently wrong, and both must be addressed to ensure islanders and the ferry-using community have accurate information.

‘A little knowledge is a dangerous thing. We deal in facts, not opinion. We are not in the business of deception or wasting Scottish taxpayers’ money.’