The Utne – the good, the bad and the consequences.

The Utne made it to Leith a few weeks ago and is being modified in preparation for entering service on the Craignure – Oban route next March. By the time she enters service she will have a new name, but what will this ‘new’ ferry do for our service?

First, the good bit:

Starting in the winter of 22/23 we will have a two-ferry service, with the Utne based in Craignure and operating alongside whichever major vessel is allocated to us (this year a mixture of the Isle of Mull and Isle of Arran – see more on that here). So we will finally get the year-round ‘Island Focussed’ service we have long campaigned for. We will have earlier departures each morning, and later returns each day through the winter. The precise timetable is yet to be figured out, but it should enable us to:

  • Catch the 08:57 train from Oban to Glasgow on any day of the week.
  • Have a full working day in Oban on any weekday
  • Have longer on the mainland, with more time to complete your journey and return home on the same day
  • Make all transport connections easier, making it less likely to need an overnight stay when travelling far
  • Make it possible to have a job in Oban and live on Mull
  • Travel to and from school in Oban on any weekday without missing classes

This is undeniably good news for our winter service, and we’re delighted that our persistent lobbying for an improved winter timetable has paid off. But…

…the bad bits

Questionable weather reliability.

The Utne was designed for service in a sheltered Norwegian fjord, on a crossing of just 2.5 miles. Her low power in conjunction with her small size leads many to predict plenty of cancellations in winter…


With a service speed of just 12 knots, she is slower than the Coruisk she replaces, and much slower than the Isle of Mull. Crossing times will be increased.

Small. Really small.

This is the biggest issue with the Utne. Her final car capacity (after new ramps and winches are fitted) is not confirmed, but CMAL expect it to be 34. We all know how difficult it is in the summer to travel when we need to – any trip via Oban has to be booked about three weeks ahead. This is due to a critical lack of capacity on the route. Last time we analysed detailed carrying stats (in 2019) we found that Craignure-Oban was the most congested route in the entire network. We’ve repeated the calculations for ’20 and ’21, and the picture hasn’t changed radically:

As you can see, Craignure-Oban has been the most congested route in the entire network for two of the past three years. Craignure-Oban and Stornoway-Ullapool are the two most congested routes CalMac have. So one thing we really don’t need is a reduction in capacity, because that will only make the summers even worse. However, that’s exactly what’s happening.

It’s worse than we were led to believe.

When we were first told about the Utne, we were told at the same time that the Coruisk’s ‘real’ car capacity was just 35. So whilst the Utne was smaller, it was described as only 1 less. In the process of compiling the table above however, we have found that the Coruisk frequently carries up to 40 cars.

A vessel with a capacity of 40 cars is being replaced with one of just 34. That is only going to make our summer crisis deteriorate, and seems a bizarre decision for one of the most congested routes in the CalMac network. On every day in summer, we will have 5% fewer vehicle spaces than before.

There’s only two ports she can operate from.

We already knew that like the Coruisk, the Utne is classified only for the more sheltered inshore routes (Euro class C). The only major vessel routes that are class C are Craignure-Oban, Mallaig-Armadale and Rothesay-Wemyss Bay. What we’ve now learned is that due to her deep draught, she could not operate out of Wemyss Bay without it being dredged; and she would have tidal restrictions on the Mallaig – Armadale route. The only two ports left that she can work from are therefore Oban and Craignure.

But there is more …. we have also discovered that the Utne will be unable to berth on the South side of Craignure pier, as the Coruisk regularly does (the side without the linkspan). The water there is too shallow. There are points in the timetable when she has to berth there, because the Isle of Mull is using the linkspan. It’s unclear how the timetable can be shuffled in order to avoid berth clashes in Craignure. In winter the berth-clash problem may be more significant.

What is most curious about the decision to buy a ferry that is so very limited in where it can operate, is the inconsistency. CalMac, CMAL and Transport Scotland set ‘interoperability’ high up their list of vessel requirements. Vessels must be able to operate in a variety of ports, so that at times of dry-dock and breakdown, they can swap with one-another. This was a requirement that was made clear to us when we proposed the Indonesian catamaran last year. One of the most positive attributes of the catamaran was its ability to operate to any of CalMac’s piers (including being able to berth on the South side of Craignure pier).

Look at what you could have had.

It is difficult not to make comparisons between the catamaran that CMAL refused to buy, and the Utne. In every respect, the catamaran was superior and would have resulted in a better service –

Price£9 million (after modification)£12 million (after modification including crew cabins)
Price per car space£265,000£150,000
Car Capacity3480
Passenger Capacity195circa 300
Speed12 knots16 knots
Able to berth overnight on MullYesYes
Able to berth on South side of Craignure pierNoYes
Large enough to operate solo in winterNoYes
Routes it can operateCraignure – Oban onlyALL major routes
Maximum wave height2.5m4m
Can onboard crew cabins be added?NoYes, if required.
MCA Compliant?Yes – with modificationYes – with modification
AgeSix years oldNewly built
Able to operate to foot passenger access systemsNoYes
Can increase route capacity in summerNo – 5.5% decreaseYes – 37% increase
Re-deployments enabledCoruisk can return to Armadale.
Some time freed up for Lord of the Isles.
Coruisk can return to Armadale.
Some time freed up for Lord of the Isles.
MV Isle of Mull can be re-deployed in winter to other duties and relief work.

Perhaps of all the contrasts between the Utne and the catamaran, the difference between their car capacities will impact the most. We could have had a summer capacity increase of 37%, but instead we have a capacity reduction of 5%. The poor decision-making around the catamaran was characterised by dogma and incompetence, and we are paying the price.

Things aren’t going to get better soon.

We’ve got the Utne / Isle of Mull pairing in the summer for at least the next five to six years. Replacements for the MV Isle of Mull are coming, but they are a long time off. Neither when 801 and 802 enter service, nor shortly afterwards when the two new ferries being built for Islay arrive, will there be any benefit to Mull. Although other vessels that are larger than the Utne will be freed up, none of them will be able to be moved to Craignure because the pier isn’t big enough for them to berth here.

It has been Transport Scotland’s published intention since 2013 to move the MV Hebrides to Mull once 802 was delivered, but that is now impossible because Argyll & Bute Council are not making the changes to Craignure pier to enable it.

We need a fair booking system more than ever

With no prospect of more capacity anytime soon, and the demand for summer travel to Mull and Iona only set to rise in the coming years, the need for a fair ticketing system is more urgent than ever. CalMac’s first-come-first-served booking system prioritises those who can book their journeys far in advance. It is prejudiced against people who have to make journeys at short notice – in other words, island residents. We cannot be expected to plan every movement on and off the island three weeks ahead. Prioritising infrequent travellers who can plan their one or two trips far in advance is discriminatory against the very people who depend on our ‘lifeline’ service.

We have written to Transport Scotland about the urgent need for reform of the booking system, but as yet there is no sign of any action being taken. Various ways of improving the system have been proposed. For example:

  • Phased release of deck space. Release the majority of deck space for booking when the timetable is published, but release the rest in phased chunks as the date of sailing approaches.
  • Make a proportion of deck space bookable only by island residents and essential travellers (eg GPs)
  • Keep a proportion of deck space unbooked, and give island residents priority in the unbooked queue

There are also ‘demand management’ measures that can be taken – in other words, using fares to encourage travellers to use particular sailings, or to deter particular travellers from particular sailings or routes. The recently announced rise in motorhome fares is an early piece of ‘demand management’ by Transport Scotland, and more can be expected in the future.

All have pros and cons, but all are better than the current system. Whatever happens, RET must be preserved for island residents.

We have written to our MSP Jenni Minto on the subject of fair booking, as well as the Minister for Transport. We’d encourage you to write to Jenni too, so that she is aware of the strength of feeling we know there is on this.

6 thoughts on “The Utne – the good, the bad and the consequences.

  1. Thank you once again for all your persistent hard work. So pleased for you that at the very least the change of timetable as finally come to fruition. However, the frustration about the ferry crisis must be at an all time high.

  2. Well there is a lot more bad news with this new ferry, hard to understand the choices the government make. I’m sick of never being able to get a booking at late notice. Thanks for the information.

  3. The obvious way to increase summer capacity is to leave Loch Fyne on the Skye run and run 3 ships on Oban Craignure, Isle of Mull, Coruisk and bath tub boat. This might overcome problems berthing at Craignure and other ports due to lack of water.
    This would work in the summer but winter is still a problem because overnight in Craignure would not work Fricay and Saturday nights.
    Would help in the summer but winter will be more weather prone than ever.

  4. So the Utne is small, slow & perhaps not the best stability CMAL have short changed Mull again .

    Good to hear the winter timetable is allowing for a longer day on the mainland, though I suspect it’ll be cancelled at any minor puff of wind.

    If CMAL/ CALMAC can’t supply a service on the Oban Craignure run that is fit for purpose, then perhaps time for another ferry operator to have a go.

  5. john laird-sykes 30th April 2022 — 11:21 pm

    The Utne indeed has crew cabin. Just a select few Norwegian ferries don’t.

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