Pentland Ferries have announced that they are withdrawing from the proposed charter of the Pentalina to CalMac. In the past few days, the RMT and Nautilus unions have been raising supposed safety concerns with the Pentalina. They have described Andrew Banks (owner of Pentland Ferries) as “a buccaneer”, “dodgy” and having “a cavalier approach to safety”. The RMT wrote to the Maritime and Coastguard Agency, alerting them to “significant unauthorised alterations to the superstructure” of the Pentalina. As we understand it, those alterations amount to the removal of a fridge from the on-board servery, which consequently had an unintended impact on the fire separation between the galley and the passenger lounge. As we further understand from sources close to the matter, the problem can be fixed in a matter of hours. However, the experience of the past few weeks has obviously taken its toll on Pentland Ferries.
Just last week, we had a very positive and exciting meeting with CalMac, where they discussed the outcome of the berthing trials and their plans for how the Pentalina would be used. The plan had been to deploy her on the Ardrossan-Brodick route in the summer, to add additional sailings when Arran’s second vessel is running services to Campbeltown. That would have been a great relief to Arran, who (like us) have a very congested ferry service in summer.
In winter, she was to have been berthed in Craignure, and would have operated additional sailings at the beginning and the end of the day. For the first time ever, we would have achieved the ‘Island Focussed’ service that we have long campaigned for, with the first sailing of the day being from Craignure, and the last sailing from Oban. This would have given us up to four more hours on the mainland on week days. It would have enabled anyone to catch the 9am train from Oban to Glasgow every day of the week. It would have opened up travel choices in the winter, making connections easier and increasing the likelihood of being able to complete a journey within one day. Commuting reliably to a job in Oban would have become a real possibility, and school children would have been able to travel to and from Oban on any week day without missing classes. We would also have had a highly manoeuvrable and wind-resilient vessel, with the prospect of a more reliable service in winter than our increasingly fragile MV Isle of Mull.
None of this is now possible, because of the threat to Pentland Ferries of ‘reputational and business damage’. It is clear to read between the lines of the press release issued by the company:
“While we were very much looking forward to working with CalMac Ferries to help provide a solution to the challenges being faced by the island communities on the west coast of Scotland, it has become clear that issues outwith our control are likely to arise over the lifespan of the contract to threaten the commercial viability. Unfortunately these issues, which fundamentally stem from the very different status of a public-funded service compared to a small private operator such as ourselves, have given us no alternative but to withdraw from the discussions. “I would like to stress that the talks with CalMac Ferries were positive and constructive and the vessel herself is safe and very suitable for service on the west coast. However, our priority has to be to the continued viability of Pentland Ferries, and to our employees and passengers. We cannot commit to a scenario whereby external factors have the potential to cause severe risk and reputational damage to the business that we have worked so hard to build, and unfortunately we have therefore let CalMac know of our decision”Andrew Banks, Pentland Ferries (emphasis added)
However minor, the safety issue on the Pentalina is real, and must be fixed. But it is clear that by sensationalising this “scandal” very publicly and defaming Pentland Ferries and Andrew Banks, the RMT have set out to intimidate the company and prevent the Pentalina from coming into the fleet. The RMT clearly perceive the Pentalina to be a threat, perhaps because the crew are not union members; or perhaps because the Pentalina demonstrates how much more productive our ferries could be. The Pentalina is of similar capacity to many of CalMac’s major vessels, but requires around half the crew. If repeated around the network, this efficiency could transform our ferry services. We could operate more ferries, more frequently – but with the same total numbers of crew. The RMT do not seem to recognise the improvement to island life this could bring, and have instead put all their efforts into a misguided and cynical effort to protect their own interests.
Because of the intervention of the RMT and Nautilus, there is now no prospect of any improvement to our service until the MV Isle of Mull is replaced, or Craignure Pier is rebuilt, or both. The ferry system is supposed to be here to provide a lifeline service to islanders, but unfortunately it often seems to serve vested interests – like the trades unions in this case.
The only glimmer of hope that remains is the Indonesian catamaran, which is almost ready for launch and remains on the market. We still do not have a response from Transport Scotland or government to the safety report we commissioned from Strathclyde University. We will be writing again to Transport Minister Graeme Dey, making it clear that the only viable solution to the crisis in the ferry system is to purchase the Indonesian Catamaran. It is viable, it is compliant, it is safe, it fits all ports, it is excellent value for money, and it could be here in a matter of months. We shall see if finally, and at the eleventh hour, Scottish Government will take action, now that their only other option has been deliberately obstructed.
RMT press release #1: https://www.rmt.org.uk/news/rmt-raises-safety-concerns-over-calmac-catamaran-charter/
RMT press release #2: https://www.rmt.org.uk/news/rmt-exposes-scandal-at-pentland-ferries/
RMT press release #3: https://www.rmt.org.uk/news/rmt-welcomes-calmac-pentalina-cataraman-charter-scrapping/