Cal-Mac Chaos?

g_chalmersI’m sure that following the events of Friday 29th to Sunday 31st May there must have been a few raised eyebrows when I was quoted in the Oban Times as commending Calmac Route Manager Ian Fox for his efforts following the breakdown of the Clansman.

I must say that on Saturday morning at 6.30am in Craignure, with a cup final ticket in my pocket, I was far from happy to be told that the first sailings from either side had been cancelled; I mean a cup-final is pretty time-sensitive – after all, 56,000 people are hardly going to wait for me to get to Hampden.I had to do some serious rearranging, but I finally made it with two minutes to spare.

I arrived back in Mull on the Sunday and started to get stories about the various inconveniences visited upon travellers throughout Saturday and Sunday with many more cancellations, and it became apparent there would also be disruption to other islands which would filter through to me later. I therefore asked Ian Fox for a full detailed timeline and the rationale behind what had been done to secure services to the islands. The very next day Ian obliged with an email that ran to 4 pages and gave a full picture of the scale of the disruption and how decisions were arrived at to provide services to Tiree, Coll, Castlebay, and Mull.

It is obvious that Mr Fox and his Masters and their crews worked extremely hard to try and maintain services while what had seemed a routine repair originally expected to take 6 hours ran into two days. Some points were made in the Email which are worth passing on.

Replacement vessels are not easy to locate for these routes. Early on Saturday enquiries with regional manager at Islay about the availability of MV Isle of Arran showed this vessel fully booked for every sailing on Saturday up to 8.20 pm. It then sailed to Oban and performed an improbable overnight return journey to Lochboisdale. Required rest periods meant a further reshuffle and further disruption.

I am sure your readers do not need me to tell them about the delays on the Coll and Tiree services. What is clear is that there is much to be praised about the way the local staff and management performed, but there are nevertheless questions about how this situation can arise.

Why is it so difficult to get replacements if one vessel breaks down and why is the result so seemingly chaotic? In truth there are a variety of contributing factors, never forgetting that vessels DO break down and staff DO need to rest. Not all vessels can get into all piers. Even if there was another vessel in the fleet it would be running a regular route rather than lying idle waiting for a breakdown, so unless you have an entire crew and vessel to spare at any time (dream on!) there will always be a reshuffle and the attendant cancellations and delays- it’s just inherent in the system.

At Ferry Consultations over the Spring I have heard it said that Calmac’s fleet needs a capital investment of some £30m to start to address the ageing state of the fleet. Lead times on new build ships are several years. Even if three new ships were ordered now, they wouldn’t come into service till 2013 or later. None of this makes particularly happy reading but I am glad the Government is trying to establish a long-term ferry strategy to identify and work to resolve these types of problems before the system breaks down entirely.

I can be reached on 01688 302 689 or by email on gordon.chalmers@argyll-ukbute.gov.

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