The state owned west coast ferry operator, CalMac, is coming under sustained attacks by west clast ferry users infuriated by a welter of recent cancellations on the service from Mallaig on the Lochaber mainland coast to Armadale on the Isle of Skye .
There have been around 80 of such cancellation – a mighty number, a serious inconvenience to islanders in the south west of Skye and to Skye folk headed for Glasgow and the south.
Public anger is understandable and justified.
However, it is unintelligent and unjust to direct that anger at the company and, as is now happening at its very able Managing Director, Martin Dorchester. and at its Operations Director, Drew Collier. There is nothing CalMac or its management can do except make Heath Robinson service rearrangements in this situation.
CalMac is in the public frontline of a service over which it has little real control.
The company is caught between two key external controllers of its circumstances:
- it has no option but to follow the instructions of its sole shareholder, the Scottish Government, acting through Transport Scotland, who contractually dictate the details of the services to be provided;
- and it has no option but contractually to accept the entire and ageing fleet of the state-owned asset holder, Caledonian Maritime Assets Limited [CMAL].
Transport Scotland dictated the deployment of a second boat for the Oban to Mull service – and the only suitable vessel for that service in the CMAl fleet is MV Coruisk, which routinely serves the Mallaig-Armadale route to Skye in the summer season.
Coruisk was replaced on the Armadale service by no fewer than three vessels., two of which are said locally to be incapable of use at low tide.
CalMac are obliged to use the CMAL fleet. It is not their responsibility if that fleet does not have sufficient capability or flexibility to allow for every changing government and public demand upon their services.
They really are stuck between a rock and a hard place, neither of which are themselves visible to the angry and ill-served public ferry user.
All the public see are CalMac boats and a company apparently in charge of and failing to provide a lifeline service [which is no longer the case with Skye, following the construction of the Skye Bridge]. So CalMac gets and takes the flak.
Skye itself is fundamentally responsible for this service failure.
Had the islanders made their failing ferry service an election issue – with the Scottish Election run last week on 5th May – and put the real source of responsibility for the situation, Transport Scotland, in the stocks – they would have got a result.
If the islanders were silly enough to put political forelock-tugging before what they see as a vital service and not take full advantage of the one serious point of leverage they possessed to get action to resolve the situation, they have only themselves to blame for their naivety.
That moment of leverage is now gone for five years.
Skye should take lessons from Dunoon on the art of being permanently bolshie and threatening with governments, openly offering votes for sale or withdrawal – and getting all sorts of concessions regardless of the cost to the taxpayer.
That stance is an unfair pillaging of the public purse – but the political reality is that if the public do not care or do not voice unrest at illegitimate use of public funds, then the noisiest and most combative grabber wins.
CalMac and its management exist in an utterly invidious situation where they can only be everyone’s whipping boy when anything goes wrong – and the nature of the CMAL fleet dictates that there is always plenty to go wrong.
CMAL too are not wholly responsible for this since the fleet was already ageing and lacked a vessel replacement programme when CMAL was created as the state-owned state maritime asset holder. There now is a vessel replacement programme whose enactment will depend on the Scottish Government making the funds available.
There are serious questions being asked of CMAL’s policy of experiment with new technologies in the new vessels being added to the fleet – for a public lifeline service which has above all to be a reliable workhorse. While that is a separate issue, service breakdowns when untried new technologies fail will continue unfairly to fuel CalMac’s vilification.