Serco Northlink admit chief officer briefly lost control of ferry – and left seriously sick child on Aberdeen quayside

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.

5th August

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.

 6th August

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?

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Related Articles & Comments

  • Aye! It’s a hard life the sea.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 2

    Murdoch MacKenzie August 11, 2015 2:16 am Reply
  • If one appears at checkin at the airport after it has closed, will they reopen for you? If you checkin online and turn up after the gate has closed, will they reopen and let you on?

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 4 Thumb down 1

    JB August 11, 2015 6:52 am Reply
    • If you have been notified before you close the check-in – as Serco were; and if you know the circumstances that are going to lead to what you are told will be a miniscule delay – and which was no more than that – three minutes; and if you know that one of those affected is a one year old child who has just had major heart surgery, it is hard to believe that most airlines would not see such a family safely onto the plane.

      Like or Dislike: Thumb up 12 Thumb down 0

      newsroom August 11, 2015 7:14 am Reply
      • Did the original report not say that they called just 6 minutes before check-in close and by the time they arrived the vessel was already being secured for sea necessarily early because of tidal conditions in the harbour.
        It’s unfortunate for the family but had it not been for the small child it would have been a non-story. If they had to ‘uprepare’ the vessel for sea, put the loading ramp back down and allow them aboard they may have missed the tide and all the passengers on board could have suffered who knows how many hours delay until the next opportunity to sail. Would this be the better decision for all?

        Like or Dislike: Thumb up 2 Thumb down 6

        Jerry McIver August 11, 2015 7:35 am Reply
        • Aberdeen is not a tidal port, and the shore staff did not give the captain the details for him to make the final decision, plus the ferry left ten minutes early. Sick child or not this is no way to run a lifeline service.

          Like or Dislike: Thumb up 8 Thumb down 1

          Gordon Harmer August 11, 2015 8:19 am Reply
          • The original news report said this.

            “No other passengers arrived late, and indeed passengers who likewise had been delayed on the A90 are recorded as having checked in at 1530 hours yesterday afternoon.

            “Mrs Cornick arrived in the terminal after this deadline and after the vessel was readied for departure.

            “Readiness for departure includes stern ramp lift, and passenger walkway removal with instruction to make ready for departure.

            “The Master of MV Hjaltland had instructed his team that a prompt departure was required due to strong tides and that the vessel was scheduled to depart from Aberdeen Harbour with clearance granted from Harbour Control.

            “Hence the vessel was secured for sea at 1630 hours awaiting clearance.

            They left late from wherever they came from, got caught out in a bit of traffic, left it far too late to call ahead and advise the operator and want someone to blame for the mess it got them into. With a small sick child you’d think most people would have left plenty of time to get to the ferry to avoid having to rush about unnecessarily.
            Bottom line, well established policy followed, vessel left on time, hundreds of passengers happy and experienced the service exactly as they should have.

            Like or Dislike: Thumb up 4 Thumb down 3

            Jerry McIver August 11, 2015 9:28 pm
        • The ferry has all night to travel to Lerwick and runs at something like half its speed so there was no panic to leave ten minutes early. The ferry has left Aberdeen up to two hours late in the past and still made its arrival time in Lerwick. Plus in the past the ferry has waited up to half an hour for a sports team who were late to arrive on board. The passengers left Glasgow hospital in plenty of time to get to the ferry and if you had read the article properly you would see they were held up by circumstances out with their control. Oh and by the way just where were the strong tides and why would they make the ferry late, you are making this up as you go along.

          Like or Dislike: Thumb up 2 Thumb down 0

          Gordon Harmer August 14, 2015 8:45 pm Reply
          • If you look at the timetable, on the 6th, a Thursday, the Aberdeen to Lerwick sailing calls at Kirkwall. That is why it has to leave at 17.00 according to the timetable. This part of the journey to Orkney is well known not to run at half speed but at the maximum speed of the vessel, something like 24 knots, to be able to reach Orkney for its timetabled arrival at 23.00.
            Those people getting off in Orkney, and those B&B and hoteliers waiting for people to get off in Orkney, and those people waiting in Orkney to go to Shetland do not appreciate the vessel arriving late any more than accommodation providers on the west coast islands would like guests turning up after midnight.
            If tides were an issue, and that is what the original report indicated, then there would be a very real potential that the vessel would have arrived into Orkney late. As the story also said, no other person appeared to get caught up in this traffic problem to the extent they arrived late, which suggests they didn’t leave with enough time.
            If they were travelling on a Monday, Wednesday or Friday then they would have been able to plan around a later departure and have a more realistic chance of the sailing being held for them because, as you say, the direct sailing to Lerwick runs much more slowly and can easily catch up the timetable over the 12 hours.
            Far from making it up as I go along, I’ve been bothered to look at the Northlink timetable to see why it might have happened.

            Like or Dislike: Thumb up 3 Thumb down 1

            Jerry McIver August 15, 2015 8:24 am
      • I once drove a couple of friends across to Prestwick from near Berwick for the last flight of the day. It was so quiet that I stopped outside the terminal without going in the car park. They were a few minutes late but there was no problem getting on the flight.

        Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 1

        Lundavra August 11, 2015 8:08 am Reply
        • Prestwick is an exception as there are so very few flights that the local population come out to watch any flights arrive and depart.Occasionally, Nicolla has been seen to hand out coffee and biscuits to spectators.

          Like or Dislike: Thumb up 4 Thumb down 1

          Alistair August 11, 2015 9:06 am Reply
  • I once drove a couple of friends across to a pub in Prestwick from near Berwick for the last pint of the day. It was so quiet that I stopped outside the pub without going in the car park. They were a few minutes late but the landord still told them to go away and stop taking the mick…

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 3 Thumb down 1

    John Smith August 11, 2015 10:27 am Reply
  • the ferry could have been all boarded by 1615, at 1630, the manifest printed and ready to go, lines being cast. What do Serco do? Hawd fire for everyone who is late, work up a procedure to identify what excuses are worth delaying departure? Come on – that’s ridiculous. Were Serco to take the ladies word she’d be 5mins late? What if 5 turned into 25? Do they wait another 5, just in case?

    Rules are rules – it’s an unfortunate situation, but let’s get a sense of proportion here – a ferry left on time, someone was late and missed it.

    I’m not sure about ferry contracted, ut if a train leaves more than 5mins late, they get fined, the fine increasing for longer lateness, to the point they are better cancelling some services rather than try run them. This is a non story. Try British Airways, Easyjet, Ryanair, Eurotunnel, Cannel Ferries – turn up late, and unless everything is late anyway, you’ve missed the boat….literally.

    I get the impression of trying to paint Serco in a bad light for running on time…odd.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 9 Thumb down 1

    JB August 11, 2015 12:27 pm Reply
  • And whilst I’m ‘ on it’, the whole piece about the officer ‘losing control’ is utter rubbish! A system failed – it failed and the officer took over control manually. How you can construe a ‘officer lost control’ line is rather bizarre. #mustdobetter

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 9 Thumb down 3

    JB August 11, 2015 6:14 pm Reply
    • This expression was that used by Serco itself in its statement to the media.

      Like or Dislike: Thumb up 4 Thumb down 2

      newsroom August 11, 2015 7:09 pm Reply
      • I think Serco are right to admit that the Officer lost control of the ships heading. It was his responsibility to navigate the ship safely, he may have put too much trust in the auto-pilot considering the weather was not that good. He could have had a seaman standing by at the wheel ready to step in quickly.
        Re the check in times, I seem to remember that these rules were tightened up following the spate of ferry rollovers. The Calmac timetables mention 30 mins check in time and also include a note stating you have to be on board with a ticket 10 mins before sailing time.
        Back in the early seventies the Captain of the old Hebrides put his port bow against the quay at Uig to let me climb over the handrail. I couldn’t get a lift at Sligachan but then a tipper truck came along and the driver ran out to the end of the pier as the ferry was leaving. A different world back then.

        Like or Dislike: Thumb up 6 Thumb down 0

        Murdoch MacKenzie August 11, 2015 9:19 pm Reply
        • Are you sure that it wasn’t just that the Skye folks wanted rid of you as fast as possible?

          Like or Dislike: Thumb up 2 Thumb down 2

          Robert Wakeham August 11, 2015 10:52 pm Reply
          • I never thought of it like that, these Skyemen are fly-men as they say in Partick.

            Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0

            Murdoch MacKenzie August 12, 2015 12:57 pm
        • Fabulous experience – and that took some skill – on both your parts.

          Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

          newsroom August 12, 2015 12:14 pm Reply
          • I think the Captain was so impressed by the driver’s efforts, he had to trump it. One of the bow men took my bag and the other one did a wrist to wrist grip with me, so there was no danger involved. The crew knew me as I was working on a lot of jobs up there at the time.

            Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0

            Murdoch MacKenzie August 12, 2015 1:06 pm

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