Concerns about operational reliability of CMAL vessels

[Updated below 21.45] There are now widespread concerns about the impact on the CalMac schedules of the vessels they lease from CMAL – the Scottish Government owned asset holding company.

For the last ten days or so there have been serial disruptions to services across the CalMac network, from the Western Isles to the Cumbraes in the Clyde.

In almost every case, the problems are technical issues with vessels requiring repairs. Some vessels have been taken out of service for a substantial period, some for lesser periods.

Take tomorrow, 18th January, for example.

The Islay service from Kennacraig is disrupted with the MV Isle of Arran withdrawn from service from 13th January ‘until further notice’. That remains the case.

The Oban-Coll-Tiree service is disrupted because of necessary repairs to the MV Hebridean Isles.

The Mallaig-Lochboisdale service – the NEW pilot service – is disrupted of ‘essential repairs’ to MV Lord of the Isles.

The Wemyss Bay-Rothesay route saw MV Bute require repairs, leading to the MV Coruisk being withdrawn from her first winter service on the Argyll Ferries’ Gourock to Dunoon passenger service.

The Berneray – Leverburgh service across Sound of Harris is disrupted from  13th to 31st January January, running on an amended timetable. This may be due to the vessel’s scheduled annual refit and we have asked CalMac if this is the case.

We have asked CalMac for information on the specific problems suffered by each of the four ferries listed above; and for a prognosis on when their repairs will be completed.

This Berneray-Leverburgh route apart, tomorrow will see four ferries simultaneously undergoing various repairs – MV Isle of Arran; MV Hebridean Isles; MV Lord of the Isles; MV Bute. This seems unprecedented.

We had already inquired of CalMac as to whether there had been a change to the maintenance frequencies of the vessels. We were assured vigorously – and believe without question, because of the known integrity of the source – that this has not been the case.

This leaves only a question over the age and reliability of the CMAL fleet.

We note that the Scottish Ferries Review mentions only:

  • The purchase of a passenger only vessel [route unspecified] during the period of CalMac’s currrent interim contract on he Clyde and Hebridean services – from Autumn 2013 to Autumn 2016.
  • The purchase of an additional passenger and vehicle vessel during the main Clyde and Hebridean Ferry Services [CHFS] contract – whose tendering is due to begin this Autumn, 2014, with the successful bidder’s contract not due to commence until Autumn 2016 and running for at least six years.

With four of CMAL’s vehicle and passenger vessels stricken at the same time in this winter of 2013-14,the Scottish Government’s  investment programme is looking increasingly unfit for purpose.

If this fleet is to continue to be a credible foundation for a west coast ferry services operator of lifeline services to the islands, a single new vehicle and passenger vessel – potentially not entering service until 2022 and possibly later – is not adequate, given the current evidence of serviceability.

If a government intending to take Scotland into independence cannot envisage an investment greater than for a single new vessel for the complex Clyde and Hebridean network- and years down the road, what sort of credibility can be placed in the First Minister’s boast that such an independent Scotland would have patrol boats and ‘some’ of the new Type 25 Global Combat Type 26 vessels which will replace the Type 23 frigates?

However, in the immediate future, there will need to be evidenced reassurance to the public on the fitness and future of the CMAL fleet.

Update 21.45: A spokesman from CalMac has let us know that MV Bute had a clutch fault; and MV  Isle of Arran suffered a propeller system fault. Both are due back in service over this weekend.

The company will inform us on the specific problems of MV Hebridean Isles and MV Lord of the Isles as soon as possible.

The Berneray-Leverburgh disruption is indeed due to the vessel’s annual refit.

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Related Articles & Comments

  • These are questions on the age of the Calmac fleet, and of the adequacy of the programme for replacing ships as they become less reliable and more expensive to maintain.
    There are more – perhaps in the long run even more basic – questions. Others on this blog have commented on the capital and running costs of Calmac specified boats, most recently on the remarkably expensive new electric boats, but I can remember reading many years ago a comparison of Calmac’s purpose-built Islay ferry with WF’s much cheaper and more economical standard Norwegian design operating perfectly satisfactorily on the same route.
    I don’t know if any of Calmac’s newer ships are standard ‘off the shelf’ designs, but I suspect not.
    Just now there’s a very sophisticated Scandinavian fast passenger boat, used for windfarm construction and servicing, in the Ardmaleish yard on Bute.
    It’s an innovative design, at first sight a catamaran but able to adjust its buoyancy according to sea conditions to achieve maximum stability, and the same design has already been used for a series of pilot boats – some surprisingly large. I wonder what chance the ‘experts’ ever look at a ship like this as ideal for fast passenger routes around the Clyde?
    Or is there a mixture of complacency, pride and arrogance getting in the way of delivering efficient public ferry services in this country?

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 8 Thumb down 1

    Robert Wakeham January 17, 2014 10:21 pm Reply
  • I don’t know big the boat in Ardmaleish yard is but quite a lot of the eagle slicer service and passenger boats pass through the Caledonian Canal, usually on their way between Denmark to either Barrow or Liverpool. Sometimes for a charter and sometimes having been sold to a UK company. One was through last week.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0

    Lundavra January 18, 2014 12:01 am Reply
    • The FOB Swath 1 is 155 gross tons, 27ml x 9.6mb, with a max design speed of 24 knots, certified for 36 passengers.

      Like or Dislike: Thumb up 2 Thumb down 1

      Robert Wakeham January 18, 2014 12:28 am Reply
  • I would have thought that it is simply a matter of probabilities that, over time, there would eventually be a day on which a number of boats have a fault simultaneously. More interesting would be to know how many times over the course of a year services are disrupted due to technical faults, and whether that has increased over the years.

    As far as a couple of hours delay in sailing, it’s not a major issue. Frankly, anyone who is sailing to or from Tiree at this time of year and doesn’t make allowances for the possibility of delays is foolish in the extreme.

    It just seems like newsroom has a hatred of Calmac.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 10 Thumb down 4

    Arethosemyfeet January 18, 2014 9:19 am Reply
  • This brings it home how Cowal is in a really enviable position, with normally six boats available to us. Yes, they can all break down, and all have an annual refit, but they are all generally reliable for the majority of the time. As another poster commented on another recent story, that some of Western’s boats were over 50 years old, and were still giving reliable service. Whether this was down to good servicing or not, I don’t know.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 12 Thumb down 1

    DunoonLad January 18, 2014 2:16 pm Reply
    • Not only is Cowal flattered by the number of vessels, there is also the road connection.

      From those looking into this debate from the outside that the most reliable service in Scotland faces competition from the road, but where there is no such competition and where the ferry services have the monopoly the service seems to beset with problems.

      Can someone hazard an explanation.

      Is it that where there is competition western ferries has to provide a robust service otherwise it will loose business but where there is no competition there is a level of complacency?

      Like or Dislike: Thumb up 3 Thumb down 2

      Peter Wade January 19, 2014 11:13 pm Reply
      • Maybe, but don’t overestimate the ‘road competition’ to Dunoon – it’s such a helluva long way around that it’s surely only the alternative of last resort.
        I’d put WF’s ‘robust service’ down to being in complete control of their boats and shore facilities, not being subject to political control with its changing priorities (to put it politely), and having an open mind / no illusions about appropriate ship design.

        Like or Dislike: Thumb up 3 Thumb down 1

        Robert Wakeham January 20, 2014 12:32 am Reply
  • My goodness how does one untangle so many related and unrelated threads? How does this blog get from Calmac fleet timetabling, breakdown and maintenance scheduling to the likely-hood of this Government ability to run the proverbial whelk stall and side issues of Type 25 Global Combat Type 26 vessels which will replace the Type 23 frigates? Just taking the thread of basic ship’s maintenance.
    It goes like this Calmac must meet its Classification Society’s requirements concerning ships’ survey and certification. To do this it must operate a Fleet Planned Maintenance System (PMS). A sophisticated PMS will generate additional management information – Safety management; Quality management; Crewing management; Crew payroll; Energy and envionmental management – avoiding common obstacles to profitability such as high inventory levels, poor delivery performance, low yield, and excessive downtime.
    I’m not a flag flyer for Calmac, but how’s about an in depth interview with the top dogs at Calmac where FA can ask them, the basics of how they run the Company and how PMS is used to manage the fleet, its timetabling, breakdown and maintenance scheduling and how it manages the performance indicators set by Edinburgh. Once the basics are collated then FA can shoot from the hip and we’ll all sit up and take note. But this article goes nowhere except up a blind alley,.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 8 Thumb down 2

    londoncalling January 18, 2014 6:36 pm Reply
  • You’re absolutely correct, ATMF.

    With a large fleet and each unit of it having unavoidably a small, acceptable probability of failure, there is a much smaller, but finite, probability that four units will fail simultaneously. In fact, the odds and the “once in xx years” figure are easy to evaluate if you have the underlying stats for the individual units. But a once in xx years event is as likely to happen tomorrow as xx years hence. That’s basic maths. This week it happened: that’s just the mathematical way of the world, though far be it from me to jump to the defence of Calmac or CMAL in relation to other issues.

    And even applying a kindergarten level of statistical analysis, in a rare event 13% of Calmac’s fleet have failed simultaneously whereas, by comparison, if one of Western Ferry’s boats breaks down, and I don’t doubt it happens, they lose 25% of their fleet. What’s the big deal?

    “MV Bute has a clutch fault”: Bute is less than ten years old – shiney new as ships go.

    The Arran had a propeller fault which required dry-docking: was it a fault in the gland or the mechanism or was it external damage from, say, collision with floating timber or from wrapping a rope? There’s a high probability that its cause was accidental and completely unrelated to age.

    Age barely correlates at all with reliability where well maintained ships are concerned. Their mechanical systems enter a planned process of continual overhaul and rebuild more or less from new right through until the very end of the life of the ship.

    Four simultaneous failures proves nothing. Without having the underlying stats for each unit of the fleet going back a decade or two, it’s impossible to state that, “this leaves only a question over the age and reliability of the CMAL fleet” and that, “the Scottish Government’s investment programme is looking increasingly unfit for purpose,” other than by resorting to blind speculation, as has been done in the main story.

    As for the bemusing and probably unintentional juxtaposition of the Rothesay ferry’s clutch failure alongside future warship procurement, well that’s a cracker, even by FA’s standards.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 10 Thumb down 0

    pm January 18, 2014 7:59 pm Reply
    • Tip top – sound stuff with basic maths thrown in for free -like it Pm.
      But should FA follow up and interview Calmac’s top dogs – vote “Like” for yes ForArgyll needs to get an interview with Calmac – OR “Dislike” it’s all a load of keich best left to fester – as it was a rubbish blog to begin with?

      Hot debate. What do you think? Thumb up 3 Thumb down 16

      londoncalling January 19, 2014 12:35 am Reply
      • My goodness, I didn’t realise that comments on this country’s capacity to provide the ships it needs could generate so much bile in one person.

        Like or Dislike: Thumb up 2 Thumb down 5

        Robert Wakeham January 19, 2014 10:29 am Reply
  • When the Calmac vessels have been able to sail recently on many days it would have been like the nautical equivalent of driving on potholed roads. It takes its toll on the machinery. It’s not just Calmac. The Isle of Man Steam Packet’s Ben-My-Chree is currently in drydock on the Clyde to receive attention to a stabiliser fin that has been damaged in recent conditions.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 9 Thumb down 0

    keith stanger January 19, 2014 10:52 am Reply
  • Maybe Robert. I recall the days pre- Western, when there was a cal-mac monopoly. The road alternative was used more than the ferry, and it was a much worse road than it is now, and took about 2 hours, which was ahout the same as the ferry, but a bit cheaper. Obviously the fuel prices were comparably cheaper also. Western do have to be careful, and not make their service more expensive than than by road. This also must relate to waiting for the next boat times as well. Remember the road alternative is much improved now, plus the eskrine bridge is an additional since the previous monopoly, so the tipping of the scales scenario is a real one for Western.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 1

    DunoonLad January 20, 2014 4:28 am Reply
    • Yes, and I forgot that – via the ferry – the road to Glasgow involves the stretch through Gourock and Greenock which – to anyone accustomed to the A83/2 – seems quite tedious.

      Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 2

      Robert Wakeham January 20, 2014 10:04 am Reply
    • Between the late 1960s and early 1980s, members of my family drove quite frequently between Renfrewshire and Cowal and used the road v ferry in a proportion of 5 or 10 to 1. That’s from the appalling hoist loaders (in the time it took to queue, load and unload during busy periods you could have driven half the road) right into the WF and Streaker era, and in cars doing 25-30 mpg, not the 50+ modern diesels can give.

      I can’t recall what the fares were but we weren’t driving for the fun of it, nor for a slim marginal saving.

      Petrol prices increased five-fold between 1971 and 1981 swinging the advantage well and truly towards the ferries of both operators which were, at long last, excellent.

      Petrol has undergone another steep price rise recently, doubling in the last ten years. At ten journey ticket prices, a single crossing on WF today costs only slightly more than a gallon of petrol or diesel which gives the ferry option a magnitude of price advantage which is, I think, unprecedented. WF could exploit this and lift fares, and probably by a substantial margin, but they’re no doubt aware that there would be a number of quite serious strategic business risks in doing so.

      Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 1

      pm January 20, 2014 11:53 am Reply

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