Last year, 2014, shipping industry website, CRSC published Ship Talk 2: Andrew Duncan, an interview with the Director of Vessels of the state owned Caledonian Maritime Assets Limited [CMAL].
Mr Duncan came to CMAL in 2007, as the first of the executive team to join, the year after the Scottish Government had established the company. He came there from the Northern Lighthouse Board, as indeed did CMAL’s first MD, Guy Platten.
Gourock-born, Mr Duncan’s career had first been in merchant shipping, then with the Northern Lighthouse Board where, when he left for CMAL in 2007, he was assistant superintendent of the construction and maintenance of lighthouse tenders. The interview notes that: ‘He was involved in supervising the building of the 1993 Pharos and the 2000 Pole Star, both at Fergusons, Port Glasgow; and the latest Pharos at Remontowa, Gdansk, in 2007’.
From the interview – in both photographs and text – he seems a relaxed and genial man. The time of the interview was in the last stages at her builders in Flensburg of CMAL’s newest vessel, the superferry, MV Loch Seaforth, in service since the Spring of this year on the Stornoway-Ullapool route.
Discussing the unusual breadth of his brief as Vessels Director at CMAL Mr Duncan describes it as being ‘responsible for developing new concepts and designs for vessels; handling shipyard tenders; managing build processes; accepting delivery from shipyards and onward delivery to the operating company’.
In the course of the interview he reveals two matters of substantial current interest.
Talking of the two new 100 metre vessels to be built – now in the process of being contracted to Ferguson Marine – the Vessels Director makes it known that a year ago these were to be assigned to Arran and to Mull.
In the meantime, Arran has remained the confirmed recipient of one of them; but Mull has been replaced by the Uig Triangle as the destination of the other.
Transport Scotland has recently made it clear that decisions on the deployment of the vessels of the CMAL fleet are exclusively the prerogative of the service network operator, CalMac Ferries limited. It would seem likely that the demands of the services in the Uig Triangle – across the Minch to Lochmaddy in North Uist and to Tarbert in Harris – were known by the operator to be greater than those of the inshore Mull service.
The second passage of the CRSC interview of contemporary interest is the following two paragraphs:
‘Cleaner emissions remain a priority for CMAL — even when, as in the case of Hallaig and Lochinvar [Ed: the two hybrid fuel – diesel-electric – ferries, now in service], it involves higher building costs and demands additional skills from the crew. Andrew Duncan says CalMac’s crews have taken ‘an almost competitive pride in what they’re doing [on the new hybrid ferries]. It’s just a matter of becoming familiar with the new systems. The whole hybrid project has stretched us positively and productively.
‘All of which begs the question: what next? He says CMAL is now at ‘stage two’ of developing a zero-emission hydrogen-powered ferry, but “it will be another six-to-nine months before we’re ready to go out and identify a shipyard [to build it]. Because of the nature of the grants we’re getting, we don’t actually have to go out to tender [on the hydrogen-powered project] — we can select the shipyard that we want to develop the concept with.’
This passage raises issues around the remit of CMAL and around its and the Scottish Government’s policies for the renewal of the ageing west cosst fleet.
Cutting-edge technology and radical vessels – as with the hybrids and as with the hydrogen-powered ferry Mr Duncan describes:
- are expensive in development costs;
- are expensive in construction and trialling costs;
- are expensive again in aspects of operating costs;
- and are likely to be expensive in reliability in the short term – as has been the case with the hybrids.
Everything about the hydrogen-powered ferry in development shouts money. This is to be a wholly customised process, with no tendering; with the identification and selection of a suitable yard to build it; and with the yard itself part of the concept development process.
The demands of time in the process envisaged are inevitably substantial. This sort of time requirement is not only additionally expensive, it is not compatible with the processing of orders by a busy yard. This means either recourse to a yard less in demand – which may be meaningful; or paying a hefty premium to a yard in demand – which will have competing distractions.
The question remains a live one as to whether CMAL ‘s new policy to build bigger, longer, faster major units for the west coast ferry network is the best operational solution. Some key matters still indicate the serious consideration of two smaller vessels as opposed, as with Loch Seaforth, to a single superferry. These are:
- service frequencies – always the issue with which islanders are most concerned;
- and the capacity for immediate redeployment of vessels to routes left without their dedicated ferry when it goes out of service for planned refit or unanticipated technical issues.
An equally major issue in fleet policy is whether it is appropriate for Scotland to invest in the public sector development of new technologies in the delivery of public service obligations like lifeline services. The uncertain reliability of new technology has to be a matter of concern with lifeline services. And with a smaller fleet of major units, the opportunities for redeployments in crisis outages are reduced.
The argument has not been formally engaged on whether it is defensible for the Scottish Government to invest public money in cutting edge technologies for lifeline ferry services. Public money in Scotland will continue to have a broad spectrum of serious social needs to support.
This becomes immediately important since, according to Mr Duncan’s timeline as given in 2014, we should be hearing any day now of a commitment to developing a hydrogen powered low emission vessel in association with a named shipyard.
With CMAL’s new announced fleet policy of fewer bigger faster vessels, it is not impossible that this hydrogen powered unit in concept development may be intended to become the template for the fleet of major units to be commissioned next. If it is to be that template, the questions to be asked are raised here. If it is not, CMAL would seem to be rather extravagant in simultaneously developing multiple vessels with new technologies.
The question now is whether, if this is the case, it is acceptable to face the even further extended service of the increasingly unreliable ageing CMAL fleet, with the almost certain delays in development and construction of this radical new vessel type?
For Argyll is simultaneously asking Transport Scotland and CMAL about:
- the present state of development of the hydrogen powered vessel;
- the progress towards identifying a yard with whose collaboration this new type of vessel will be fully conceived and built;
- the cost of the development to date;
- the budget for this development;
- the anticipated cost per vessel into service;
- the anticipated date for the vessel type’s entry into service;
- its proposed deployment in the CMAL fleet, in terms of its role and the numbers of its type expected to be built.
The irreducible bottom line is that the lifeline services – and Scotland – need appropriate, flexible, reliable and affordable ferries for the west coast.
The worry is whether there is a developing culture of using public money to support what may be little more than costly vanity projects in radical vessels for senior public sector executives and government officials.
Utility is always the benchmark criteria.