Barely three months into the contract the Scottish Government gave it by very dubious means, Serco NorthLink’s colours are being flown at the masthead.
Presenting it as a positive bonus for the Orkney and Shetland islanders, Serco has announced that none of the three ships on these routes will be dry docked until February 2014.
With the contract, Serco has taken over the three NorthLink ferries for the routes, with the Hrossey and the Hkaltland serving Shetland and the Hamnavoe serving Orkney.
The Shetland News, sold and swallowing the line of greater ‘convenience’ and ‘uninterrupted service’, notes that ‘In recent years Shetlanders were regularly inconvenienced when the Hjaltland and the Hrossey were in drydock, cutting the daily overnight service in half”. It celebrates the change by pointing to no repeat of last winter, when Shetland lost one of its two ferries for a time to stand in on the Orkney route during the Hamnavoe’s scheduled dry docking.
There are far greater ‘inconveniences’ than a short-term reduction of a winter timetable to accommodate scheduled dry docking.
The reality is that what is being served up to the gullible as an ‘uninterrupted service’ amounts to no more than cost cutting by a substantial drop of 50% in maintenance standards on these lifeline routes.
Presumably there will have been a sum allocated for annual dry-docking within both the tender specification and the various bids. Will the Scottish Government now request that sum back on a biennial basis – or will the bonus for Serco in this maintenance cutting become the all nudge-wink all-purpose let-out clause - ‘this is a matter for the operator’?
The Serco move comes with the company’s MD, Stuart Garrett’s delighted ‘discovery’ that there is no legal requirement for annual drydocking.
In a serious and experienced service, should this be a cause for celebration?
Serco has only run one little ferry across the Thames. The Atlantic, the Pentland Firth and the North Sea are very different and infinitely more hostile scenarios, much more demanding and punishing of the craft involved.
Without annual dry docking, the likelihood of an unexpected technical fault on these routes becomes more probable. Scheduled dry dock periods are managed with advance warning to have the least possible impact on service users. The unscheduled technical stoppage can occur at any time and is more disruptive, potentially seriously.
These are lifeline services and that means not just a service but the assured reliability of that service as far as is humanly possible. Legally required or not, that means annual dry docking.
This is the essential difference between a state owned service – which puts reliability and best practice first; as opposed to a privateer who thinks, ‘Hey, these boats are only ten years old. They’ve had their ten year service. We don’t need to dry dock them that often – and look at the savings.’
No operator can be sure when a technical problem will arise that will require a boat being taken out of service. The best protection against sudden service failures is regular maintenance.
This downgrading of maintenance has been made with the express permission and indeed the approval of the Scottish Government.
Back in May at the announcement of the contract award – in this government’s now familiar modus operandi, on the very day of the Scottish local elections when it would not affect the vote – Transport Minister Keith Brown himself celebrated the prospect of uninterrupted service.
The cheap buy off manoevre
In exchange for the greater risks of service failure accruing from the trumpeted ‘uninterrupted service’, Serco is giving the two Shetland boats:
- some public showers;
- some more reclining seats;
- moving seats from the forwaad bar to the games machine area – revenue generating opportunities;
- more disguised cost cutting in losing the a la carte restaurants and replacing it with what it describes as ‘a premium lounge with a gastro-pub-type dining experience’.
MD Garrett slides neatly around the obvious consequences of such revisions by saying: ‘The contractor we are looking at is very experienced in doing shipboard refurbishments.
‘It may well be that there are days when we will have to reduce the offering, but we will do that when there are fewer passengers travelling.’
So ‘service’ becomes an ‘offering’ in the differently committed private sector and the gullible are left to forget that scheduled dry docking takes place at the slack times of the year.
The freight sleight of hand
In the same announcements, Mr Garret made it known that:
- one of the company’s freight ships will be tied up somewhere, to be announced later this month – between January and June 2013, as the cargo service will revert to a one-ship only operation;
- should the amount of freight needing to be shipped be higher than expected, the second vessel would be brought back into service.
In May’s shock announcement of the change of service operator, Transport Scotland made a big deal of foregrounding continuity and improvement of the promptness of carriage of fresh seafish.
Mr Garrett now says: ‘We are satisfied for the time being that the total volume of freight on offer currently can be carried with the proposed timetable,’
Crucially, in the light of Mr Brown’s sales pitch in May, he goes on to say: ‘It may be that this will require certain freight to be shipped the day after it might have been historically, but we will work on that over the next six weeks with a view to determining before 2013 what final shape and form our timetable will indeed take.’
The promise was made to Shetland at the time of the contract award, that one of its two ferries will not be assigned to the Orkney route to cover the Hamnavoe’s scheduled dry dock periods; but ‘another boat’ will be sent to the Scrabster-Stromness route. This is likely to see a scabbier service offered to Orkney at these times, the clear loser in the Scottish Government’s irresponsible action with this contract.
The real bottom line
The big issue here is the cutting of the maintenance programne to save money. These are dangerous waters. Every winter there are tales of the Shetland service making it into Aberdeen after something like 30 hours at sea on what is normally a 12 hour passage.
Serco, the Shetlanders and the Scottish Government can do no more than hope that a service ‘uninterrupted’ by nuisance maintenance periods in dry dock does not find itself with a boat adrift in such conditions with a sudden technical problem.
Note: Serco’s cost cutting approach to public sector contract delivery and its preparedness even to falsify data to present a misleading picture of service delivery is demonstrated in The Guardian’s exposure of unacceptable performance in NHS contracts by two separate Serco companies. We reported on these matters in the two stories below, one from yesterday.