Ferries: Serious questions arising in Ministerial responses to McGrigor’s parliamentary questions

A few weeks ago Highlands and Islands MSP, Jamie McGrigor got answers from Transport Minister Derek Mackay on a series of three written parliamentary questions he had tabled.

These were on the subject of the cost, performance and comparative performance of MV Coruisk on supplementary winter duty to assist the two Argyll Ferries vessels, MV Ali Cat and MV Argyll Flyer, on the Gourock-Dunoon town centres’ passenger service.

Below are the verbatim Q&As; and below that is the commentary on and questions arising from this information.

The way information is presented shapes the way it is received; and some of this information has been presented in ways enabling it to present a misleading picture.

First Q&A exchange

17 April 2015
Index Heading: Transport Scotland
Jamie McGrigor (Highlands and Islands) (Scottish Conservative and Unionist Party): ‘To ask the Scottish Government  what the cost to Argyll Ferries was of operating the MV Coruisk on the Gourock to Dunoon route between (a) December 2013 and March 2014 and (b) December 2014 and March 2015; how many scheduled sailings there were and how many were (i) completed and (ii) cancelled and the reasons for these cancellations; how many additional sailings were undertaken to cover for the MV Ali Cat or Argyll Flyer, and how many passengers were carried on the (A) scheduled and (B) additional sailings.’

(S4W-25064)
Mr Derek Mackay MSP:

The cost to Argyll Ferries Ltd of deploying the MV Coruisk on the Gourock-Dunoon service this winter was £812,000. The net cost to Transport Scotland was £110,000.
I also refer the member to the answer to question S4W-20485 on 22 April 2014 in regard to 2013-14 costs of the deployment of the MV Coruisk. All answers to written parliamentary questions are available on the Parliament’s website, the search facility for which can be found at: http://www.scottish.parliament.uk/parliamentarybusiness/28877.aspx

Operational stats MV Coruisk 2014-15

*MV Coruisk covered the MV Argyll Flyer’s timetable when off due to technical reasons. The service was operating to timetable and as such, no cancellations were recorded against the MV Argyll Flyer. They are included as additional sailings for MV Coruisk.
**Majority due to above reasons

Commentary

In 2013-14, the total book cost – the actual commercial cost – of the Coruisk’s supplementary winter deployment on this route was £658,000.  With a total of 9,514 passengers carried by Coruisk, amounts to an additional public subsidy on this route of just over £69 per head for passengers which the normal service should have been able to carry.

In 2014-15, the actual commercial cost of this deployment of Coruisk was £812,000.

With Coruisk carrying a total of 14,885 passengers over this period, this brought an additional public subsidy of £54.5 per head for passengers which the normal service ought to have been able to carry.

This simply cannot be justified as a remotely responsible stewardship of public funds.

Second Q&A exchange

17 April 2015
Index Heading: Transport Scotland
Jamie McGrigor (Highlands and Islands) (Scottish Conservative and Unionist Party): To ask the Scottish Government  how many scheduled sailings there were on the MV (a) Ali Cat and (b) Argyll Flyer on the Dunoon to Gourock route between (i) December 2013 and March 2014 and (ii) December 2014 and March 2015 and how many were (A) completed and (B) cancelled and the reasons for these cancellations, and how many passengers were carried.

(S4W-25065)
Mr Derek Mackay MSP:

OP State Coruisk & AF fleet 2014-15

*MV Coruisk covered the MV Argyll Flyer’s timetable when off due to technical reasons. The service was operating to timetable and as such, no cancellations were recorded against the MV Argyll Flyer. They are included as additional sailings for MV Coruisk, as per information given in the answer to S4W-25064 on 17 April 2015.

Commentary

This is an example of the way presentation of information can distract and mislead.

In both the first and the second table above, the service consequence of a technical issue which put the Argyll Flyer out of service for a period of time in the 2014-15 winter season is given as ‘additional sailings’ by MV Coruiisk, showing no cancelled sailings by MV Argyll Flyer, which was actually under repair.

This mode of presentation had two strategic advantages:

  • it makes the Coruisk look busy and necessary;
  • it disguises the fact that, in reality, these ‘additional sailings’ by Coruisk were cancelled sailings by Argyll Flyer – which then appears more reliable than she was in practice.

Why does Islay get no standby vessel?

The major issue raised here is that this deployment of Coruisk has effectively given Argyll Ferries an allocated standby vessel paid for in addition to the price in the service contract awarded to Argyll Ferries.

This will be of sharp interest to Islay, which has had a bad season so far from service failures largely due to repeated technical breakdowns in the ageing CMAL fleet operated by CalMac.

There has been no allocated standby vessel for Islay, a year-round busy island with whisky and other freight constantly on the move and a sufficiently regular flow of visitors to mean that B&B prices are  not seasonal but fixed.

Speaking of Islay, we note that the Vessel Replacement Plan in the Scottish Ferries Plan shows the second vessel on the Islay service – MV Hebridean Isles – being replaced by 2016. This does not seem a commitment likely to be honoured, given the timescale involved..

Third Q&A exchange

17 April 2015
Index Heading: Transport Scotland
Jamie McGrigor (Highlands and Islands) (Scottish Conservative and Unionist Party): To ask the Scottish Government  what investment in new vessels will be required to cope with any anticipated increased demand as a result of the network-wide extension of the road equivalent tariff scheme on west coast ferry services and what the cost implications will be.

(S4W-25145)
Mr Derek Mackay MSP:

The Scottish Government, on 19 December 2012, published the Scottish Ferries Plan. This plan sets out short, medium and long term improvements over the next decade and included outline costed proposals for vessel investment.

Discussions between CalMac Ferries Ltd, Caledonian Maritime Assets Ltd and Transport Scotland on the detail of the vessel replacement and deployment plans are currently on-going and once finalised, will be published. These plans take account of forecast demand including that created by the success of Road Equivalent Tariff fares on the Clyde and Hebrides ferry service network.

Commentary

This response does not answer the question – with worrying implications.

The Scottish Ferries Plan does not show any calculations considering vessel requirement or replacement plans against any modelling of projected increased demand from the network-wide adoption of Road Equivalent Tariff [RET].

The swerve of this answer will have been intentional since it will have been prepared for the Minister by officials at Transport Scotland, who will have been fully aware of every detail of the contents of the Scottish Ferries Plan.

Worse, the fact that the Scottish Ferries Plan’s investment and procurement plans show no factoring-in of any modelling of increased demand  driven by the network-wide introduction of RET fares, raises yet further questions of the competence of this major spending department.

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Related Articles & Comments

  • The reply from Mackay states:-
    ++
    “Discussions ….on the detail of the vessel replacement and deployment plans are currently on-going and once finalised, will be published.”
    ++
    This is to address the conflict between CMAL’s Corporate Plans(on CMAL’s website) and SG’s Ferry Plan I referred to in your article yday:-

    http://forargyll.com/2015/05/calmac-off-on-major-face-to-face-consultations-on-lifeline-ferry-services/

    Transport Scotland(TS) attends CMAL Board meetings. Were TS attendees asleep when CMAL corporate plans were discussed/finalised?

    This raises a serious issue of Corporate Governance, but ,Scottish Govt owns the lot of them, so does Corporate Governance go out of the window when Govt is the exclusive Corporate Owner?

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 7 Thumb down 1

    rob trythall May 13, 2015 10:04 am Reply
  • The other issue is usage

    Coruisk:- Average 16 passengers per trip, capacity 250
    Coruisk (covering for the flyer) Average 11 passengers per trip, capacity 250
    Ali Cat:- Average usage 13 passengers per trip, capacity 200
    Argyll Flyer:- Average usage 15 passengers per trip, capacity 200

    Perhaps the Scottish Government should be looking to replace them with the Mary Celeste.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 3 Thumb down 3

    Peter Wade May 13, 2015 10:18 am Reply
  • Noted, but these are averages, so what is peak demand usage?

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 2 Thumb down 3

    rob trythall May 13, 2015 10:42 am Reply
  • I see the Ullapool linkspan has passed it’s load test so they have managed to get it installed within the shortened four weeks. Well done Ullapool Harbour. I’m not sure when the Loch Seaforth is getting it’s double ramp installed though.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0

    Murdoch MacKenzie May 14, 2015 11:19 pm Reply
  • I suppose that Jamie could ask Derek another question about the scatter cash ferries management of Calmac.
    Ullapool Harbour have done really well and got their linkspan completed within the four weeks, so well done to them and CMAL who were involved in the project management.
    The Loch Seaforth has laid it’s stern ramp down and it all fits beautifully except for one thing.

    She still only has her offset single ramp and it all looks rather silly laid down on that big new linkspan. I’m not sure if these ramps bolt or weld to the strong beam of the stern gate, but if it is a welding job I can see it taking a week to get done.

    The question that a watchdog like Jamie needs to ask is why this work was not done in the week before Ullapool closed and Calmac already had the Isle of Lewis and the Clipper Ranger tied idly in Stornoway harbour for almost two months.
    If it has to be done now another vessel will probably need to be brought in if the Clipper Ranger goes off hire as she was meant to on Monday.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

    Murdoch MacKenzie May 15, 2015 2:21 pm Reply
  • Well, that’s the three ship shuffle over at Stornoway. The Seaforth will run with vehicles to Ullapool from 0700 tomorrow. They say that there is a technical problem with the Isle of Lewis, she seems to be down a couple of knots the last few days and missed some crossing last week that they put down to weather.
    From what I’ve heard she also needs some internal upgrading as the accommodation is looking tired.
    I imagine that will be the Clipper Ranger off hire as well. The hauliers will not be pleased as her relaxed turn around at night suited them more than the earlier time table that the Loch Seaforth runs to.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

    Murdoch MacKenzie May 15, 2015 9:12 pm Reply

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