In a meeting yesterday with Transport Scotland, CalMac and CMAL management, it was confirmed that a second-hand vessel has been bought from Norwegian ferry operator Norled, and would be brought into service on the Craignure-Oban service. This is the result of a search by CMAL for suitable second-hand vessels to purchase for the CalMac fleet (the same search that we attempted to contribute to by proposing the Indonesian catamaran).
The MV Utne was built in 2015 in Turkey, at about the same time as the MV Loch Seaforth that is currently CalMac’s newest vessel. The Utne is being sold in order to make way for zero-emission battery-electric vessels that are being introduced across Norway.
The Utne was being offered for sale for 6.6 million Euros (£5.6 million), and Transport Scotland estimate the final cost after modification will be around £9 million. Modifications are therefore £3.4 million or thereabouts. She will need new vehicle ramps in order to fit our linkspans, and possibly new winches too, as well as other minor changes, including CalMac livery of course. Although the ferry will be in CMAL hands by the end of October, she will not be ready for service until next summer.
The details of timetable and so on have still to be finalised, but the plan is for the Utne to be stationed in Craignure all-year round. At just 50 metres long, she will easily be able to berth at Craignure Pier.
Winter timetable improvements
With a car capacity of just 34 and 195 passenger spaces, she is too small to be Mull’s only winter vessel. So the MV Isle of Mull will continue to operate alongside her, with the Utne’s contribution being felt most at the beginning and end of the day. For the first time, we will have the ‘Island Focussed’ winter service we have long campaigned for.
There is a quid-pro-quo here: with two vessels on the route in winter, we are more likely to see the MV Isle of Mull used for emergency cover elsewhere.
Earlier departures from Craignure will enable us to be in Oban before 9am on every week day, so that we can catch the first train to Glasgow; or get to school; or be in an office before 9. Later returns each day will make travel connections easier; give a full working day on the mainland; or simply give you longer to complete a journey and return the same day. Our winter timetable will see real and significant improvement at long last.
In the summer months, the Utne will take over the role of the Coruisk, enabling her to return to the Mallaig-Armadale service (and in turn freeing up the Lord of the Isles and the Loch Fyne). The Utne has almost the same vehicle capacity as the Coruisk (around 34, compared to around 35 for the Coruisk), and fewer passenger spaces (195 compared to 250 – but there may be scope to increase that a little). She is also slightly slower than the Coruisk, so crossings will take an additional five minutes or so. Also like the Coruisk, the passenger access system in Craignure will not fit, so foot passengers will have to embark and disembark via the car deck.
If she operates a similar timetable to the Coruisk, the Utne will not therefore make any improvement to our summer congestion problem. She has one key advantage however, that may overcome that. Not only does she have a small crew (expected to be 7, compared to the Coruisk’s 12), but that crew will live ashore, rather than in cabins on the ferry. This opens up the opportunity for longer working hours, by operating two crews on shifts. The route the Utne is leaving in Norway operates for around 18 hours per day, because two crews work a shift each (as is common on many short-distance ferries the world over). A similar working pattern on Mull could enable the Utne to make around 9 returns per day in summer instead of the Coruisk’s five, by adding sailings earlier and later in the day. Despite being the same size as the Coruisk therefore, she could increase capacity on the route with a different working regime.
There are many details still to be confirmed, key among them the summer shift pattern. With a shore-based crew however, CalMac will be looking to recruit new crew members from Mull. This is a great job opportunity. For any crew members that cannot be recruited from the island, on-shore accommodation will need to be found.
This new vessel is therefore great news for Mull, and is unlikely to have come about had we not campaigned so long and loudly around the need for improvement, and on the Indonesian catamaran in particular. Whilst we did not get the new ferry we wanted, we at least got a new ferry. Comparison with what we could have had is difficult to avoid, and it has to be said that this is a much lesser vessel. The Utne has much lower car and passenger capacity; and is far slower. The catamaran would also have been capable of operating to other islands in the network when needed (particularly Coll, Tiree and Colonsay), whereas the Utne is restricted to Mull, Armadale and the Clyde. And whilst the catamaran would have been a little more expensive, by any measure it would have been far better value for money. It is also hugely frustrating that issues that appeared to be intractable in the case of the catamaran (like on-board crew cabins) present no problems for the Utne.
The Utne (the name may well change!) will be with us at least until the MV Isle of Mull is replaced. It will be interesting to see how she performs, and what lessons may be learned for whatever is built new for the route. If you have views on the Isle of Mull replacement and our Specification of User Requirements, make sure you get in touch.
Also see the press release below: