An utterly incoherent series of moves by state owned west coast ferries operator CalMac over the service between Mallaig im Lochaber and Armadale on Skye has ended with new Transport Minister, Humza Yousaf, forcing CalMac CEO, Martin Dorchester, into a humiliating climbdown that underlines forcefully who really calls the shots in what is presented as a freestanding incorporation.
Spinning on the water – the first revolution
Firstly, CalMac and Transport Scotland [under former Transport Minister, Derek Mackay] had announced and then implemented a new summer season fleet deployment.
This was designed to respond best to the relative needs of the island destinations following the projected impacts on demand of the massive Road Equivalent Tariff [RET] discounts now offered across the entire west coast ferry network.
The new arrangements gave the busy Isle of Mull, 45 minutes offshore of the scenic mainland coastal harbour of Oban, a second boat, increasing carrying capacity and offering an enhanced service frequency.
The second boat in question was the MV Coruisk, built for and annually serving the Mallaig-Armadale route in the summer season.
With Coruisk’s departure, the Skye service was then delivered by three vessels, in a move that left the taxpayer picking up an increased operational tab.
The trouble was that in low tidal conditions, these vessels could not deliver to the Armadale slipway, with a high level of resulting service cancellations – and outrage from Skye.
Mull and Skye are both very well known and celebrated islands, magnets for tourism and particularly so now that RET has made west coast ferry travel so cheap.
Mull is accessible only by sea. Skye has the spectacular Skye Bridge on its inland northeast corner – but the geography of the mainland west coast means that traffic from the south heading for the island has an additional couple of hours on the road to use that point of access as opposed to taking the 40 minute ferry from Mallaig to Armadale – on the inland south east of the island.
When the new arrangements were seeing the Armadale service suffering repeated cancellations, furious residents, supported by their new MP, Ian Blackford, launched a petition that was said to have attracted 800 signatures in one hour.
Spinning on the water – the reverse evolution
The public pressure from Skye, in its robust demands for the return of ‘our ferry’, the Coruisk, was skilfully maintained on reheat – and on 1st June, the Oban Times published an article announcing that Mr Blackford had told them that, following a discussion he had had with CalMac CEO, Martin Dorchester, the Coruisk was to be returned to Skye’s Armadale service.
The Oban Times article ended with the words: ‘A spokesperson for CalMac was unable to confirm the news when contacted by The Oban Times’.
Despite this responsible caveat, there has been no denial by CalMac of the existence of this conversation nor of its claimed outcome.
Some of Mr Blackford’s specific words quoted by the Oban Times were as follows [and the emphases are ours]: ‘I am delighted that Caledonian MacBrayne has decided to return the MV Coruisk to operate the service between Mallaig and Armadale and are seeking the support of Transport Scotland to sign off on the redeployment. It is also accepted that the demands of the route require an additional vessel to support the volume of traffic that is anticipated.’
The picture at that stage was CalMac unilaterally reversing a major service redesign affecting two islands; and ‘seeking Transport Scotland’s ‘support’ for the move.
The boot seemed emphatically on the CalMac MD’s foot.
The welcome of the decision from Skye was unequivocal, with Mr Blackford saying: ‘The company and its management are to be commended for restoring the Coruisk to service on the route.’
The article made no mention whatsoever of the impact on Mull of this agreement between two other parties.
That was then – 1st June 2016. Skye was getting back the Coruisk.
Spinning on the water – the next revolve
A short week later, on 7th June, CalMac issued the press statement seen below in full.
This reverses its MD’s recent reversal of the new fleet assignments, asserting that Coruisk will remain on the Oban route; and that timetable changes made to the Mallaig-Armadale run are now addressing the issues of service unreliability on that route.
This communication appears – in awkward fashion – to be claiming this decision as its own initiative – yet it flies absolutely in the face of the agreement made seven days earlier by CalMac’s MD with Ian Blackford, to return the Coruisk forthwith to the Skye run.
The key to the situation lies in the second element of Mr Blackford’s information to The Oban Times – that CalMac was to seek the support [not the consent] of Transport Scotland for the settled return of Coruisk.
It is clear that the ‘support’ of the new Transport Minister, Humza Yousaf, was not given and that he has seen fit to remind Mr Dorchester sharply of the limits of his authority.
Whatever the ‘arms length’ situation may be spun to be, in this state owned company it is the sole shareholder, the Scottish Government acting through Transport Scotland – that calls the shots. It is a master-slave relationship with political expediency not transport efficiencies dictating what passes for ‘policy’.
CalMac and its various MDs have always been in an invidious situation, appearing to have authority they cannot assert. The compromise here is that Mr Dorcheste has been allowed to claim that his second sudden change of mind – to retain Coruisk on the Oban route after all – was all his own work.
The fact that this is palpably untrue and that his paymaster cracked the whip, is the sort of cruelty politicians like to practice in inflicting punitive humiliation on those who forget the realities of their position in the scheme of things.
While Mr Dorchester was surprisingly remiss in failing to take into account the consequences for Mull of the agreement he made with Ian Blackford, his hands are tied by the limitations of the politically disposed fleet.
The Isle of Arran has for some time been used as a relief vessel and could have served as second boat on the Oban route.
But she has been politically deployed permanently [following a failed three year pilot operation] as the vessel delivering a few weekly summer season services between Ardrossan in Ayrshire and Campbeltown in Kintyre – sailing a shamefully useless timetable that cannot offer a day trip to Campbeltown and indeed requires a stay of two nights before a sea return is possible.
So Oban keeps the Coruisk – until Skye, as of course it will, increases the pressure yet again; and Mallaig-Armadale is still served by three vessels, with the taxpayer, as always, picking up the tab.
The CalMac press statement
Ferry operator Caledonian MacBrayne (CalMac) has confirmed it intends making no further changes to the Mallaig-Armadale service this summer but has agreed, after listening to community concerns, that it will review vessel deployment for summer 2017 in consultation with affected communities.
CalMac Managing Director Martin Dorchester said the timetable changes made in light of reliability issues on the Mallaig-Armadale service had noticeably improved performance on the route.
He said: ‘We regret that our plans for the Mallaig-Armadale route have fallen short of some expectations but I would stress that every change to our summer timetable was made after consultation with the local communities and each change was made in good faith with the sole intention of enhancing ferry services and addressing local concerns, some long-standing, about services in their area. We should also not lose sight of the fact that the vast majority of these changes have been warmly welcomed by those local communities.
‘For the first two months of the Mallaig-Armadale summer service passenger numbers have risen by 9.9% and vehicles by 20%, or more than 2600 extra cars since the start of the summer travelling to the island on that route.This route continues to carry more passengers and more traffic to Skye than it has ever done in the past. While we accept there were issues, the changes we have made to the timetable have appeared to address a number of these, but we will of course continue to monitor performance on the route.
‘We have also been mindful that with vehicle carryings up around 40% on the Oban-Craignure route the additional capacity provided by the MV Courisk has had a positive impact on the communities of Mull and Iona.
‘Having thoroughly explored all the options regarding these two routes and the implications for the rest of the network of a vessel reshuffle part way through the summer season, we have reached the conclusion that the arrangements we currently have in place are the best possible to meet many differing demands with the resources we have.’
CalMac and Scottish Ministers are fully committed to the route and CalMac has pledged to continue to work with and support Sleat for the remainder of 2016, the latest initiative being the revised timetable.
Mr Dorchester added: ‘Concerns to date have focused on the MV Coruisk and vessel deployment in general , but the port and harbour infrastructure we have to use is also a major limiting factor across our network when it comes to planning and operating services and we will be speaking to the relevant authorities, in this case Mallaig Harbour Authority, Argyll and Bute Council and Caledonian Maritime Assets Ltd ( CMAL) to seek their support in getting the investment in infrastructure required to address some of these issues.
‘With the tender now under our belt we will shortly be turning our attention to summer 2017 services and will be working with all communities on what these might look like. We are particularly keen to capitalise on the significant growth achieved since the full roll out of RET fares to see how we can continue to support that for the benefit of all the communities we support.’