Ferry revelatory 2014 CRSC interview with Andrew Duncan of CMAL

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In the meantime, Arran has remained the confirmed recipient of one of them; but Mull has been replaced by the Uig Triangle as the destination of the other.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.

The CRSC interview with Andrew Duncan is online here.

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Related Articles & Comments

  • This nonsense needs as wide a publicity as possible.

    Your conclusions are spot on.

    What we on the islands want are frequent,reliable services at as low a cost as possible.

    These people need to be reminded of that as often as possible.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 4 Thumb down 2

    parkie October 10, 2015 11:51 am Reply
  • More white elephants, joy.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 2 Thumb down 2

    db October 10, 2015 3:58 pm Reply
  • I wonder if hydrogen power technology for marine engines is any more advanced than for buses – where Mercedes trialled city buses around the world (including London) about ten years ago but don’t seem to have got much further with the concept.
    And, of course, the failure of wind farms to generate baseload electricity could be rectified if their surplus power could be used to manufacture hydrogen for generating electricity in calm weather, but this well-aired idea doesn’t seem to have got very far yet.
    Maybe CMAL knows something that the rest of the world apparently doesn’t?

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 1

    Robert Wakeham October 10, 2015 9:09 pm Reply
  • and with this two new vessels either 2018 or 2019

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

    Scott Smith October 10, 2015 11:14 pm Reply
  • You mention the Loch Seaforth when you say that,
    “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.”
    The reason that the Loch Seaforth is a larger ferry is because the route is longer. Stornoway’s port Barons fought for the establishment of the Ullapool route. MacBrayne’s had started the Uig triangle and the Barons saw their stranglehold over the logistical needs of 25000 people disappearing. They got their wishes granted and a new road was built to Ullapool to service it. For forty years they held back the upgrading of the Stornoway to Tarbert route that led to the Uig ferry that only travelled half the distance to do the same work. Even today, if all the Lewis and Harris traffic travelled via Uig on two shuttling ferries of the Hebrides type, the Loch Seaforth and all her hundreds of millions of pounds of taxpayer support would not exist. Such a service could easily run as a commercially profitable business.
    When the efficient, but slower, Sulliven did the Ullapool crossing the people complained about how long the journey was taking and started demanding a 20 knot ferry that could do a six hour turnaround. The Isle of Lewis was the answer and was introduced with a massive fanfare as the answer to all the problems. The problem was that by the time that the old Suliven crew started to transfer to the new build at Port Glasgow and immediately realised that the new vessel could not carry enough arctics for the route, it was too late to do anything about it.
    Twenty years of throwing money at charter vessels to plug this gap has led to a new sense of entitlement from the Stornoway “stakeholders”.
    The new ferry, Loch Seaforth, seams to have settled in well once all the new spending was completed, but it seems that they would now rather have two ferries. They don’t realise that two ferries would have to be smaller and therefore slower which basically would turn the clock back to when they demanded the bigger, faster ferry. There is just no pleasing some folk.
    The simple solution was the one that MacBrayne’s started in the early sixties with the triangle route. Economic, simple vessels and a more frequent service. No subsidies required, just some road improvements through Skye and access to the A9 via a tunnelled route.
    It is the same with all the routes. Keep them as short as possible with simple vessels running shuttle services if needed, that’s all car and freight ferry users need.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 3 Thumb down 1

    Murdoch MacKenzie October 11, 2015 5:18 am Reply
    • It’s interesting to compare Calmac’s preference for larger ferries on the longer distance services – with implications for service frequency – with the evolution of passenger services on our railways over the decades – where relatively infrequent large trains have tended to disappear in favour of shorter but more frequent trains.

      Like or Dislike: Thumb up 2 Thumb down 1

      Robert Wakeham October 11, 2015 3:26 pm Reply
    • Very vaiuable – and revealing – information and analysis on the back story here, Murdoch. Thank you.
      And we agree completely on what is the most constructive, effective, responsible and affordable fleet policy for the network.
      But it’s clearly going to be about toys for the boys – one of the many abuses of public money.

      Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0

      newsroom October 11, 2015 5:54 pm Reply
  • You have got it spot on Murdoch. Although not really a comparable route, Western have got it right on the Clyde. With four vessels, albeit on a normally 20 minute crossing, (they can cross in less than 10 minutes, at higher speed) they can provide a 15 minute service when required. Even when breakdowns and annual servicing occurs, there is still another three vessels to service the route. Yes, not as likely to get as bad weather as some other routes, and no elaborate passenger facilities onboard, but does all what is needed.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 4 Thumb down 1

    Dunoon Lad October 11, 2015 12:25 pm Reply
  • I think that the questions of optimum vessel size, route choice, service frequency etc., are separate from the development of new propulsion systems.
    The age of oil will not last forever … whatever it looks like just now … and research has to be done on the likely successor systems. There are of course risks in this, but there are at least as great risks in being caught out when things change. So in principle I agree with the decision to commission the two hybrid boats, though in practice I think that the vessels themselves are badly conceived … particularly in the retention of slipway terminals which seriously restrict their draft at the ends, and hence load capacity. But trials of hybrid propulsion systems … yes. This kind of experiment can really only be done with state support ( which doesn’t mean that it can only be done through a publicly-owned company )

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

    Arthur Blue October 16, 2015 9:54 pm Reply

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