December round-up of ferry news part one – Summer timetables, CalMac terms and conditions and more…

There’s lots going on at the moment … so much in-fact that it’s difficult to keep up to date with it all! Below is a round-up of current issues we are working on and other ferry news. There is so much we’ll do this in parts….

A bursting membership

We held our AGM at the end of November, and now have a very full list of 28 committee members from across Mull and Iona. You can find a list of all our current members here. If you have a ferry issue to discuss, you are welcome to get in touch with any of them. Our aim is to represent the different communities and interests across Mull and Iona as fairly as possible. We welcome all contributions, however you can make them – you can email us; talk to a MIFC member; respond to our regular surveys or comment on our social media posts. We’re always keen to hear from you!

We represent islanders not just by directly communicating with politicians and officials, but also through the press. As an example – at the AGM we were joined by journalists from BBC Radio 4, who are producing a documentary about the current state of ferry services. It’ll be broadcast in January. Our chair Joe was interviewed, together with others from the island.

Summer timetables 2023

In November we submitted our requests to CalMac for next summer’s timetable. We tried to capture all the key points that have been made to us by islanders. This will be the first summer timetable constructed around the Loch Frisa as our second ferry, and we have suggested ways to make the best of what she can offer.

  • CalMac now insist on 50 minute transit time and 20 minutes turnaround for the MV Isle of Mull as a minimum, rather than the 45/15 minute cycle she used to operate. We are challenging the assumptions behind this slowing of the vessel, but for now we have no choice but to work around it. We have therefore asked for adjustments that improve public transport connections and abide by the 50/20 cycle time.
  • We’ve asked for more sailings on Sundays, as requested by many people who responded to our call for feedback. Sunday is an increasingly busy tourist travel day, and we hope that by offering more services some of the pressure might be taken off Saturday when capacity is very stretched. Later sailings on Sunday will also give more opportunities for islanders to make trips away for the weekend – including sports fixtures and school trips.
  • We have asked for additional evening services through the week, operated by the Loch Frisa.
  • The Loch Frisa has a significant amount of unused crew time, so we have suggested this is utilised (at no additional cost) to operate these extra sailings. (By contrast, the Isle of Mull is near the limit of her crews’ working time).
  • To enable the additional Loch Frisa services we have requested, the Isle of Mull (or perhaps the Clansman) will need to move off the berth in Oban for a short period. This will add a little time to the working hours of those crews, but there are balancing reductions elsewhere. This brief manoeuvre would enable the Loch Frisa (who’s crew have a lot of available time) to operate those much-requested extra sailings.
  • If no additional sailings are operated, then the total weekly vehicle capacity on the Craignure-Oban route will be reduced significantly, relative to the capacity of the IOM-Coruisk pairing of previous summers. (The Loch Frisa only carries 34 cars, compared with the Coruisk’s 40.) These additional sailings are therefore needed, just to maintain the same total vehicle capacity as previous years.

The summer timetables will be published in late January. That’s later than typical but an improvement on this winter, when that timetable was published less than a week before it began. CalMac are catching up on the seasonal timetable process, after the delays caused last summer by the Uig closure. We will be asking for you winter ’23/24 suggestions very soon!

You can download our timetable request as an excel sheet below, if you want to see the detail of our requests.

CalMac’s new ticketing system and terms and conditions

The introduction of CalMac’s new ‘E-booking’ ticketing system has been delayed a couple of times previously, but now seems set for March. With the new system will come new procedures and capabilities (many of them positive and much-anticipated, such as the ability to buy concession tickets online), but some may not be so positive and/or might take some getting used to.

In the summer we resisted proposals to amend CalMac’s terms and conditions, whereby it was proposed that any ticket amendment would be subject to a £10 fee. CalMac agreed to keep their existing terms and conditions, but would be enforcing them more rigorously.

One of CalMac’s key objectives with the introduction of the new ticketing system is to minimise the number of ‘no-shows’ – ie tickets purchased for a particular sailing but then not used. Reduction of no-shows is to everyone’s benefit, because it should result in more deck space being available. There are two ways in which CalMac aim to make better use of available deck space:

  • The new e-booking system will allocate car deck space more accurately. Rather than making a guess about the size of each vehicle, it will know the precise dimensions of each.
  • Encourage ‘good behaviour’ by passengers; ie encourage passengers to amend tickets if there is a change to the intended journey.

We have had several discussions with relevant CalMac managers regarding the application of their terms and conditions, and how they will be integrated into the new ticketing system. There are two key aspects to highlight:

  1. Tickets will only be valid for the sailing for which they were purchased. This in practice means:
    • If you arrive for an earlier sailing than that which you bought a ticket for, you must amend your ticket. There is no charge for amendments.
      So if you are driving a vehicle, this means you just need make sure you tell the member of shore staff who checks you in that you bought the ticket for a later sailing, and they will make the amendment. (You may also be asked to join the back of the un-booked lane if the sailing is sold out).
    • If you are delayed for some reason and you instead decide to travel on a later sailing, you must amend your ticket, and do so before check-in closes* on the originally-intended sailing. If you don’t do this, your ticket will be invalid. You won’t just lose your reserved vehicle space, but the value of the fare also. You will have to buy a new ticket for both legs of the journey if you have bought a return fare, unless you amend. So make sure you amend!
    • As is common on Mull, you might decide to change which route you use – you might make a late decision to use the Lochaline-Fishnish service instead of Craignure-Oban for example. If you do this, you must amend your ticket before check-in closes* on the originally-intended sailing. When the new ticketing system is introduced, Craignure-Oban tickets will not be accepted on the Lochaline-Fishnish route (and vice-versa). Deck crew of the Lochaline ferry will not be able to make an amendment for you, so you must amend the ticket* either online or by phone. (or buy a new ticket).
      If you have bought a return ticket, and it is the outward leg that you decide to change, and you fail to amend your ticket before check-in closes*, both the outward and the return legs of your ticket will be invalid. This is already catching some people out – a last minute decision is made to travel via Lochaline instead of Oban, and when the passenger has arrived in Oban they have found that their return ticket is invalid. Invalid in the sense that as well as losing their reservation they have also lost their ticket fare, so they have to buy new tickets.
  2. Tickets will become invalid if you arrive after check-in closes.
    Currently if you arrive less than 30 minutes before departure time you have to join the un-reserved queue, but your ticket is still valid. What is proposed is that you will not only lose your vehicle space, but your ticket fare also. In other words if you are delayed for some reason and arrive less than 30 minutes before the sailing departs, you will have to buy new tickets.
    We have protested this, but have not yet had a full response. The rule is not yet being applied, but it will when E-booking is introduced. We think it is unreasonable because:
    • It’s punitive, adding un-necessary cost and stress to islanders.
    • It does nothing to fix the ‘no-show’ problem, therefore has no ‘good behaviour’ justification.
    • It will potentially lead to conflict at check-in, with staff having to tell passengers that they will need to buy new tickets, even if they are only 1 minute late.
    • It will add to the burden on staff.
    • It is contrary to the current terms and conditions. As mentioned above, CalMac previously agreed (as a result of the penalty-charging consultation) that no changes would be made to terms and conditions (save for the introduction of a cancellation fee). The current T&Cs have departure as the cut-off for ticket validity, not check-in.

So whilst we hope point 2 above will be changed, the upshot of point 1 is that we are all going to have to get used to amending our tickets if we intend to make any change to a journey. That can be done online, by phone, or by visiting a port office (But notably, not by asking a member of deck crew on a minor vessel either now or after introduction of E-booking).

One other potential partial fix is to buy single tickets instead of a return. The tickets will still only be valid on the sailings you buy them for, so if you change plans you should still amend. But – if you think there is a chance you might change outward journey plans (for example by travelling via Lochaline instead of Oban), then your return ticket will be unaffected should you be a no-show on the outward journey. This might be helpful if you can’t get through to the CalMac call centre, don’t have a mobile phone or for any other reason you might not be able to amend in time. You will at least have the reassurance that your return ticket will not automatically be invalidated as a result of being a ‘no-show’ for the outward leg.

Buying separate single tickets does not cost any more, but it is a cumbersome process on the current CalMac website. With E-booking, it will actually become easier to buy two singles instead of a return.

These changes are being introduced now. But until the new E-booking system is up and running you might find that their application is variable, or that knowledge of the rules is inconsistent across the company.

Particularly on number 2 above, we will let you know if anything changes. If you have questions please ask them and we will try to get clarification. (Note also that we published an earlier post on this topic, but subsequent information has made it incorrect, so it’s been deleted).

Remember – you can amend a ticket for free, any time up until check-in closes*. If you want to cancel a ticket entirely then a £10 fee will be deducted from your refund. If you want to cancel less than 24 hours before a sailing you will not be charged £10, but you will not get any refund.

*For now, the deadline will be check-in closing time (ie 30 minutes before sailing time). When E-booking is introduced (probably in March), each sailing will have a check-in opening time, as well as a check-in closing time. The deadline for amendments will then become check-in opening time, which will bring the deadline for amendments forward.

Vehicle lanes in Lochaline

One easy-to-understand and straight-forward piece of good news!

The poor layout of lanes in Lochaline has been a problem for some time, resulting in late-arriving cars joining the end of lane one, and boarding ahead of earlier arrivals in lanes two and three.

We have suggested improvements to CMAL (owners of the port) and are pleased to confirm that changes to the lane markings are planned for early in ’23.

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