News from our meeting with the Transport Minister.

In August we had a meeting with Transport Minister Jenny Gilruth in Craignure, on her first visit to Mull. We had a very productive and positive meeting, covering several key topics.

Samso System

We explained the inequity of the current ‘first-come-first-served’ booking system, and our suggested solution. Ms Gilruth was very sympathetic to the issue. Building on earlier indications from Transport Scotland that the proposal would be discussed with CalMac, the Minister gave a firm commitment to look at options around booking policy.

That doesn’t mean that the Samso system as outlined will be implemented exactly as-is. The practicalities of administering the system need to be discussed with CalMac. But the government’s objective is to have a trial in place for the 2023 summer season, and the Craignure to Oban service will be included in any such trial.

This is excellent news, and we look forward to seeing the outcome next summer.

Winter Timetables

Now with only seven weeks remaining until the start of the winter timetable, we still have not seen timetable proposals for this winter. Anyone wishing to plan travel after October 23rd or co-ordinate their businesses, (tour operators for example) is unable to until the timetables are published. Bus operators are also unable to devise timetables.

This unprecedented delay is due to ongoing work to mitigate the planned closure of Uig this winter. In the past few days this appears to have been resolved, so we hope that we will shortly get sight of the proposed timetables. There will be little or no time for consultation or adjustment however. That is concerning, given the anticipated scale of changes on the Craignure-Oban service. This will be the first winter with the Loch Frisa in operation, now described by CalMac as our ‘core vessel’.

The advantages the Loch Frisa should bring – the long-campaigned-for Island Focussed Service with earlier and later departures – may be compromised by over-reliance on a vessel that is under-sized and slow. We await the winter timetables with some trepidation, to see how much support from a major vessel the Loch Frisa will be given this winter.

MV Pentalina

We used the meeting to advocate for the introduction of the Pentalina into the CalMac fleet. CalMac themselves have also recommended to government that she is chartered on a short-term basis. The most likely use of the Pentalina would be to deploy her on a route that would free up a major vessel to act as a roving spare. The need for a spare major vessel has been urged by CalMac and is now acknowledged by Transport Scotland.

Deployment on either of the Oban-Craignure or Ardrossan-Brodick services (where she had successful berthing trials last year) would create a spare vessel from either the Isle of Arran or Isle of Mull.

Last time the Pentalina was offered to CalMac it was on a crewed charter basis, a proposal that the main maritime unions obstructed by grossly exaggerating a minor safety issue and intimidating the owner, Pentland Ferries. The outcome from that was the purchase of the much smaller and less versatile Loch Frisa.

If the Pentalina enters the fleet this time around therefore, it is most likely to be a ‘bare-boat’ charter, where the operation and crewing is managed by CalMac.

The Minister confirmed that negotiations to secure the Pentalina were underway, but could not give any details due to ‘commercial confidentiality’. Hopefully these negotiations will conclude positively, and winter reliability across the entire network will benefit as a result.

Replacement of the MV Isle of Mull

Planning for the replacement of the MV Isle of Mull remains on track, with expected delivery around 2026/27. Transport Scotland have taken onboard our contributions to the process, including most importantly the Specification of User Requirements that was the outcome of wide public consultation. We feel confident at this stage that Transport Scotland are listening to our suggestions on how best to satisfy user needs.

We made the case to Ms Gilruth and to her officials that the Oban-Craignure service needs a thee vessel solution, with a high-frequency service using relatively low-capacity vessels over a long operating day. This would give a flexible, frequent service that could transform our service. Below is an extract from the Specification of User Requirements that demonstrates what a three vessel service could look like.

Any suggestion that Mull will be served by 801/802 sized vessels with up to 130 cars disgorged from each sailing is now completely off the table. Transport Scotland agree with the widespread community view that each vessel should have no more than 80 car spaces, and the service should be operated by either two or three vessels.

We made the case to the Minister that a key design focus should be crew efficiency. A three vessel service where each vessel has the same crewing as the MV Isle of Mull (around 27) will simply be unaffordable. In order for timetable improvements like the above to be economically viable, each ferry needs to be cheaper to operate. There are examples both inside and outside CalMac where crewing is far more efficient (for example MVs Argyle and Bute – crew of 12).

If each of those three new vessels had a crew of around 10, the total crew numbers would remain roughly the same as they are now – but in return we would get nearly double the number of sailings, double the total capacity and an 18-hour operating day.

The Minister was very interested in what we had to say around this topic, including our examples of how typical CMAL designs tend to be far more expensive than they have to be. For the same amount spent on hulls 801 and 802, sixteen vessels similar to Pentland Ferries’ Alfred could have been built.

Pentland Ferries’ MV Alfred. Cars: 98, Passengers: 430, Crew: 15 Cost: £15 million

The next step in the process is a Community Needs Assessment, that will define the service that the island requires, and the opportunities for filling the gaps. We can expect wider and more public consultation from Transport Scotland in the coming months around that.

It is also likely that as an interim measure, the Finlaggan could be re-deployed to Craignure-Oban once the new Islay ferries are delivered in 2024/5. The Finlaggan has a higher car capacity than the Isle of Mull (77 versus 65), so capacity would be increased slightly. That extra capacity is only possible however with the use of a mezzanine deck, that takes time to load an unload. The mezz deck may not be useable if pre-Covid turnaround times are resumed.

MV Loch Frisa. Cars: 34, Passengers 195. Crew: 7. (Crew 4 when previously operated in Norway)

Whatever vessels are built for Mull, the timetable will be compromised if they do not match one-another in terms of speed and capacity. The timetable frequency will be determined by the slowest vessel on the route – currently the Loch Frisa, with a 1 hour crossing time. The MV Isle of Mull could run the route in 40 minutes (as she used to when new), but has to operate more slowly to avoid berth clashes with the slower Loch Frisa. A key user need is for a return to a clock-face timetable, with departures on the hour. That will not be possible if a vessel as slow as the Loch Frisa remains on the route.

We also pressed the case with Transport Scotland for a more competitive design process for the Mull ferries, in contrast to the process which CMAL favour which is to choose one exclusive naval architect. It seems that proven designs from competing designers are excluded from the outset – most notably catamaran options. We want to make sure that there is greater competition and the best outcome for Mull & Iona when the project moves to the design phase.

5 thoughts on “News from our meeting with the Transport Minister.

  1. I’d like to publicly thank the committee for all the hard work they’ve put in on our behalf. I just hope those spending the money listen!

  2. You have a lot more supporters indirectly involved but keeping a close eye on proceedings. Mark Hodgson wrote a very good piece in cliscep.com including a section on the government’s future development in shipbuilding, the sums off money involved would replace all the old stagers in one go ! The more of the population doing staycation (even a sunny day for the Rothesay show ) in Scotland the more being caught up in the ” technical delays” and breakdown cover.

  3. The biggest problem I have seen is CMal, before they came along things ran fine.

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