Scottish Government response to failure of Orkney ferry service exposes key issue

With the Northern Isles ferry service from the Caithness mainland at Scrabster to Stromness on the island of Mainland in the Orkney Isles crippled by the terminally damaged crankshaft on the MV Hamnavoe, Serco, the controversial private sector operator of the service, seems no nearer to resolving the issue of a back up boat to run the route.

In Orkney, the independent operator Pentland Ferries, runs a route across the Pentland Firth from Gills Bay in Caithness to St Margaret’s Hope on South Ronaldsay in Orkney.

In the rising temperature of anger in Orkney at the Serco situation, leaving the island without its state subsidised ‘lifeline service’ and down by 50% of its ferry access with the tourism season opening up, Serco has made it know that the Hamnavoe will be out of service for around four weeks, with no back up ferry yet on the horizon.

In defending the situation, A Scottish Government spokesperson has said the contract it has with Serco – to whom it controversially awarded the contract for the Northern Isles services under a year ago – ‘explicitly covers what will happen in the event of vessel failure’.

This appears – by admission – to have been as ‘explicit’ as an understanding that Serco will address the failure of any vessel by making ‘best use of of their maritime experience and industry contacts’.

The simple fact is that at the time of the award of their contract, Serco had NO maritime experience whatsoever.

The only ferry it had previous operated was a short cross-river ferry in the Thames in London.

So the company’s ‘maritime experience’ is at old as its Northern Isles contract and its industry contacts no older.

This continuing episode underlines the vulnerability of lifeline services to ‘cost efficient’ private sector operations and ought to give the Scottish Government pause in their agenda to privatise the Clyde and Hebridean services – once the Independence Referendum is out of the way.

The tender for these services was due this September 2013 and was hurriedly put back to 2016-17, with no remotely defensible explanation.

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Related Articles & Comments

  • ‘The simple fact is that at the time of the award of their contract, Serco had NO maritime experience whatsoever.’
    From Wonkypedia:
    ‘Serco Denholm is a joint venture between Serco Group and Denholm Group to provide Marine Services in support of the Naval Service at its three main naval bases, HMNB Portsmouth, HMNB Devonport and HMNB Clyde.’
    ‘As of 2012, there are over 100 vessels in service,[5] vessels carry the ship prefix SD and auxiliary (A) or yard (Y) pennant numbers.’
    One of the services Serco Denholm also operated was Islay to Jura.

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    Lundavra April 30, 2013 4:57 pm Reply
    • So no industry contacts? I am pretty sure in another article re directors at mount Stuart you mentioned Peter timms cv which lists him as Chairman of north link as well as detailing his previous director ships at cal mac etc, I am pretty sure he has a few industry contacts older than the start of the contract…..

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      Steven May 2, 2013 6:17 pm Reply
      • What has he been able to deliver?
        The best contacts cannot deliver a ship when there are none available.
        This is the fundamental weakness of the contract the government let to Serco last year.

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        newsroom May 2, 2013 8:45 pm Reply
        • Timms has got nothing at all to do with Serco Northlink Ferries, which took over from the company of which Timms was chairman last July.

          Serco Northlink’s boss is Stuart Garrett, well known in the ferry industry for a long time and who, at one point, was the one of the bosses at the Isle of Man Steam Packet.

          The contract let to Serco is exactly the same as the contract would have been had it been handed again to CalMac, of that there is no doubt. Serco at least had the sense to keep two freight boats available all year round, one of which is now providing sailings from Orkney to Scrabster, though only carrying lorries.

          Perhaps newsie could make a wee phone call to Andrew Banks to see if they’ve got some sort of amicable arrangement in place for Serco to handle their lorry traffic while Pentland Ferries handles their car and passenger traffic?

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          Jim Williamson May 3, 2013 4:08 pm Reply
          • That does indeed sound very sensible, but I wonder if the transfer of Helliar to run trucks between Scrabster and Stromness has the added benefit (to Serco) of keeping their ‘lifeline’ subsidy from Holyrood intact?

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            Robert Wakeham May 3, 2013 5:10 pm
    • No maritime experience? Serco run more marine vessels for the Royal Navy than the navy run themselves.
      You don’t have to look much further than Serco’s own website to find stuff.
      Sloppy, sloppy research and journalism.,-towing-and-salvage/serco_denholm_awarded_mod_contract

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      Jerry McIver May 5, 2013 6:43 pm Reply
      • This is not comparable experience – not will it even exist in the same Serco subsidiary. Serco is a gigantic company with a very complex corporate structure.

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        newsroom May 5, 2013 8:11 pm Reply
        • Why so surprised at scottish governments choice? last time they let the contract to a complete new start up jv half owned by a bank. as we know, that ended in a fiasco.
          Your point about being in a different subsidiary is probably true but misses the point.

          In the UK operations, all parts will have to operate with the oversight of the MCA and comply with the same international laws. This fact alone would drive standardised processes and a consistent approach to things like safety and environmental compliance. Do you think Serco would risk all their other marine operations by not throwing their best collective knowledge at the contract to support it?

          It would be fair to say Serco had limited experience of large passenger RoRo operations but what does that really mean? Inexperience of rostering staff for working the restaurant? Rostering staff at terminals?
          All the really important stuff around maritime competance – the genuine safety, environmental, security and operational knowledge of how to operate and maintain vessels is common to most maritime operations that have to comply with IMO conventions and they have a vast breadth of experience of this.

          And didnt they bring in management with long histories in Stena and Isle of man steam packet to run the day to day business?. Both of those are passenger RoRo businesses with reputations for good efficient management that far exceed Calmac.
          It’s amusing that Calmac brought in a guy who was previously selling laptops and printers to lead a company full of people who are probably very decent but have never really had to concern themselves too much with being efficient or competitive.

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          Jerry May 6, 2013 12:29 pm Reply
  • So why don’t the Orcadians buy their own ferry and tell Edinburgh and London to ship out?

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    Murdoch MacKenzie April 30, 2013 7:52 pm Reply
    • Isn’t that precisely what Pentland Ferries is about? And they run a damn good service from my (somewhat limited) experience.

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      Arethosemyfeet April 30, 2013 9:32 pm Reply
  • Does anyone have any statistics on the failure rate of crankshafts in large marine diesels?

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    johndyment32 May 2, 2013 11:04 am Reply
    • More frequent than you might think.

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      pm May 3, 2013 11:08 am Reply
  • You could have the best contacts in the world but the simple fact is, if there is no other boat suitable as a like for like replacement – in this case a large passenger RoRo ferry with a draught, stern door and speed capability to work on the route and fit the land based infrastructure – that is available when you need to use one, then they aren’t worth anything.
    Dry docks are planned months and months in advance partly around the availability of a replacement vessel from another operator. The chances of a replacement vessel being available at a moments notice is very near zero.
    Scottish Government could have insisted that a spare vessel is available to use at any time in the contract but that would have added an insane amount of money to the cost of running the contract to pay for it.
    Given the choice of risking a couple of weeks of disruption that may never happen, or having to pay considerably higher fares to contribute to the cost of a vessel that at best might only get used during dry dock for a couple of weeks every other year I don’t for one second believe any islanders would willingly pay for the cover they’re now demanding. And forArgyll would be shouting from the rooftops about what a gross waste of public money it would represent.
    The solution in place now, using the spare freight vessel and working with Pentland Ferries seem to me to be the most sensible and pragmatic solution.

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    Jerry McIver May 5, 2013 6:25 pm Reply

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