Serco, the company operating the ferry services to the Northern Isles and one of the two bidders in the legally ramshackle current tender for the Clyde and Hebridean Ferry Services, has had two serious incidents in 24 hours on the Shetland service.
One was a serious misfortune and the second a serious misjudgment – both on the Aberdeen-Shetland route.
Five days ago, on Wednesday 5th August 2015, the ferry MV Hjaltland was on the 17.30 service out of Lerwick in Shetland, bound first for Kirkwall in Orkney, en route overnight to Aberdeen.
Just before 21.40, about a third of the way to Kirkwall, passengers were terrified when, in the words of one young mother reported by the Shetland News: ‘I was getting out of my seat to gather stuff when the boat just started tipping over, and kept on going over and over on to its side and I just grabbed my peerie boy. It just came completely out of the blue. You could see the sea coming nearer the window, while on the other side people said that they could see nothing but sky, they couldn’t see the horizon at all. Quite a lot of folk felt that the boat was going to capsize because it kept going over and over, further than you thought it could go over.’
Serco later admitted that the ship’s chief officer had lost control of the vessel for a few seconds, during which the ferry was recorded in a 16 degree roll to port. This is measured from the point of equilibrium, so passengers would have experienced up to a 32 degree movement from the extreme point of one roll to that of its counter roll. Until this was experienced, the ship had been rolling nine degrees in moderate seas.
It seems that the heavy roll either caused or was coincidental with a failure of the autopilot, with the Chief Officer who was on watch keeping duty then taking back manual control of the vessel in an incident said to be recorded as 14 seconds long.
The following day, Thursday 6th August, a young Shetland couple were making their way home from Glasgow’s Yorkhill Children’s Hospital with their one year old son who, nine days previously, had undergone his second – and nine hour – major operation in a year. This followed a smiliar operation when the toddler was twelve days old, seven hours in theatre that time.
Both surgical procedures were addressing a serious heart condition with which the baby, Joshua , was born – aortic stenosis. While typically this condition gets worse over time, if it causes heart failure, as it did with Joshua who has been chronically short of breath, the outcomes are worse.
His life expectancy after the first operation was a couple of years. This second procedure though, saw the surgeons successfully replace two of Joshia’s valves – first the aortic one with his own pulmonary valve and then replace that pulmonary valve with one from a donor. This left Joshua with the expectation of a full normal life. He is one of the youngest babies to have been given this operation.
The family were travelling to Aberdeen last Thursday, with Joshua, to catch the Hjaltland’s 17.00 service out of Aberdeen, bound for Lerwick via Kirkwall.
The A90 south of Aberdeen was closed with a lorry fire and at that time of day there were traffic jams in this busy city. Mrs Cornick phoned Serco Northlink to explain what was happening to them and that it meant that they would be a very few minutes late for check in – which closes at 16.30 for a 17.00 departure.
In the event, they were three minutes late, arriving at 16.33 – and were refused passage, advised to sail the following night when no cabins were available. This obviously meant finding somewhere to stay in the always busy Aberdeen, at no notice at all; and with a very young child just out of hospital that day, recovering from recent and serious heart surgery and who could be supposed to be particularly vulnerable to infection.
Serco staff insisted that there was no room for negotiation in the 16.30 check-in closure and refused to consult the master of the vessel. To add insult to injury, as the family stood on the harbourside, the Hjaltland left her berth ten minutes before schedule.
Obviously, in their circumstances, the family could not contemplate putting Joshua through a fourteen and a half hour passage the following night, with no cabin. Their redeeming stroke of luck was being able to get on a flight to Shetland from Aberdeen the next morning.
That night, from their room in the Aberdeen Premier Inn, Mrs Cornick penned a letter of complaint to Serco, with a forensic listing of the company’s failure of care for them in the incident. The punchline of this was the literal truth: ‘Your staff showed no concern about where we would go tonight, basically they chucked an ill baby out into the cold with no thought whatsoever.’
Stuart Garrett, Serco NorthLink’s MD, tried to tough out the dreadful misjudgment of his staff in so unusual and obviously needy a situation where a humane and helpful response would still have seen the vessel depart on time.
- He blamed the family for not having the prophetic capacity to warn him in advance of the traffic hold ups they were to experience.
- He implied that, because no other passengers had arrived late, this somehow suggested that the traffic delays were the family’s own fault.
He expressed no care for the experience meted out to the family in their position, not any for the very sick child intended to be on his way to the sanctuary of home.
The concept of service
The meaning of ‘service;’ is not limited to simply providing a service in your terms for customers to take or leave. Properly conceived, ‘service’ involves care for the individual’s experience during your ‘service’ – and above all, that means easing the ever-present stresses at the points of transition – the access and the exit.
The tender for the Clyde and Hebridean ferry services for which Serco is one of two bidders, awards 35% of the scoring system for quality of proposed service.
Whatever Serco promises in that tender, it will have against it the reality of its ‘service’ record in its mistreatment of the Cornicks.
To be fair, its competitor, CalMac Ferries Limited, has no great record itself in looking after passengers who become victims of unexpected circumstances. Earlier this year a woman complained bitterly in the press about her family’s treatment, booked to travel out of Oban to Colonsay. The vessel concerned was then carrying on to Port Askaig in Islay, with some passengers travelling onwards from there on a different ferry to Kennacraig on the mainland Kintyre peninsula.
The complainant, headed for a family celebration on the island, found the boat, late to depart from Oban for weather reasons, unable to berth at Colonsay in the prevailing conditions; and sail on to Port Askaig. They were told that they would have to travel on to Kennacraig and from there, somehow make their way to Oban to take the following day’s ferry to Colonsay.
There they had to disembark and, with young children, spend substantial time on the quayside at Port Askaig before boarding another vessel for a further two hour passage to Kennacraig, which was as far as possible from where they had intended to be. They wee dumped off at Kennacraig, in darkness, with no idea of the geography or how they might get away from Kennacraig or where they might stay for the night.
Here were two families, in extremis in different circumstances, each the victims of a wholly inadequate service practice by each of the two competitors to run the lifeline ferry services on the entire Scottish west coast network.
Air services are no better.
What does it take to get transport services dragged into delivering something approximating to an acceptable version of customer care in the context of 21st century communications?