Medical protocol improvements, Samso system and more…

Here’s a roundup of ferry news for January

Could this be third time lucky for a catamaran?

Pentland Ferries’ spare 70-car catamaran ferry the Pentalina has made her way to Garvel dry-dock on the Clyde for annual service, ahead of what we believe will be her addition to the CalMac fleet.

Pentland Ferries began advertising for new crew late in 2022, for operations ‘in Scotland’. We also know first-hand that CalMac have been pressing Transport Scotland to approve chartering her, at least on a short-term basis.

In 2021, plans were well advanced for the deployment of the Pentalina, with berthing trials completed, and ferry committees briefed. The plan was to deploy her to Mull in the winter and Arran in the summer. That plan was scuppered when Pentland Ferries came under intolerable pressure from trades unions, both in the media and elsewhere. Consequently they withdrew from the deal; and the Loch Frisa was bought hurriedly afterwards instead.

CalMac’s interest in the vessel remained however, because of the desperate shortage of vessels and their appalling reliability. The experience of ’21 may explain why this time both Transport Scotland and CalMac refuse to confirm or deny anything regarding the Pentalina. But she’s entering service somewhere in Scotland, and everything points to CalMac.

But which route will she work on? Maybe we’ll know soon…

Long Term Ferries and Ports Plan

Transport Scotland have released the first element of the Islands Connectivity Plan – a Long Term Plan for Vessels and Ports. Its a long read, and maps out the main threads of development for the next 22 years. The headline intention is that:

We will reduce the average age of the fleet to around 15 years by the end of this decade.

Jenny Gilruth, Minister for Transport

Cynics might point out that had the ferries plan of 2013 been delivered, then the average age of the fleet in 2022 would already be 13 years. Instead it is currently 24 years, and all but one of the major ferries promised in that 10-year plan have not been delivered. So whilst there is lots of promise, such plans do not hold much credibility if past performance is anything to go by.

We would encourage you to read the plan and respond to it. It is in draft form for consultation. We will certainly be studying it and responding fully.

One promising part of the plan refers to Mull. We have long advocated (alongside many others) that the Craignure-Oban route needs vessels of moderate size (as opposed to, for example, the huge vessels now destined for Arran), and to have more of them. Three medium-sized ferries on our main route could deliver high frequency, reliability, high capacity and a long operating day. All the aspects that we know are the community’s priorities from our surveys.

The plan suggests a new class of medium-sized ferry could be deployed to Craignure-Oban, as well as Rothesay-Wemyss Bay and Armadale-Mallaig. These are all short routes of under an hour, and in relatively sheltered water. This is a very welcome suggestion, and bodes well for the up-coming new vessels for our main route.

Improvements to the Urgent Medical Appointments Protocol

Following requests we have made to Transport Scotland, the Urgent Medical Appointments Protocol is being broadened, so that it will also be available to people being discharged from hospital, as well as those travelling to an appointment. The time limit is also being lengthened to three weeks prior to the appointment date (since ferries can easily book up that far in advance). CalMac will be issuing new advice about this on their website on Thursday 2nd Feb, and the new procedure will take effect from Friday 3rd.

This protocol is there to help anyone who has a medical appointment to attend on the mainland (or now, being discharged from hospital), but is unable to get a car booking on the sailing(s) of their choice. You should ring the CalMac contact centre and tell them you wish to use the Urgent Medical Appointment Protocol. You will be found a place on the ferry for your car; and if one is absolutely not available then CalMac will pay for a taxi for the mainland portion of your trip.

More dry-docking delays and extension to Loch-Frisa-only service

Like the Isle of Mull and so many other vessels, engineers have discovered what is euphemistically called ‘excessive metal wastage’ on the Caledonian Isles (Too much of the hull has rusted away). This, together with significant extra engine work, is resulting in several additional weeks for her in in Greenock. This has a knock-on effect to most other major vessels, including the Isle of Mull. Whilst it is not yet confirmed, it is likely to mean that the planned return of the MV Isle of Mull to Craignure on February 23rd will not go ahead.

The Loch Frisa is herself due to enter dry-dock on February 28th. It seems very likely that we will not now see a return to a 2-vessel service until late March, just before the summer timetables start.

Missed the 30 minute check-in? CalMac plan to make you buy a new ticket.

Last year we fought off proposals by CalMac that booking amendments would be subject to a charge of up to 100% of the ticket value. CalMac undertook an Island Communities Impact Assessment of the proposals at our insistence (itself also a minor victory – CalMac had previously denied that they were subject to the Islands Act, despite their parent company David MacBrayne being explicitly obliged to observe it). The outcome of that ICIA was a promise not to make any significant changes to the company’s terms and conditions.

Late last year however we became aware quite by chance that actually, together with the introduction of their new ticketing system (planned for March), they would instead be making a very punitive and significant change. Rather than just losing your deck space if arriving less than 30 minutes before sailing, they now propose that our tickets will also become invalid.

This is utterly outrageous, punitive, and has no benefit whatsoever other than boosting fare revenue. As well as encouraging people to drive fast and dangerously if they find themselves delayed by traffic or road conditions, it is sure to be a cause of high tempers at check-in, with CalMac staff on the front-line.

We have written to CalMac, Transport Scotland, the Transport Minister and our MSP to protest. A response we have received just tonight appears to confirm that the plans will not change. We will be taking this further, because it is a bizarre and completely counter-productive proposal that breaks the company’s own conditions of carriage, as well as the outcome of the ICIA. We would encourage anyone who objects to this proposal to also email the Transport Minister.

Next Winter’s timetables

With thanks to those who have made suggestions for next winter’s timetables, we have now submitted our requests to CalMac. In the case of Craignure-Oban, our central request is that we are guaranteed a two vessel service all-winter long. Whilst the Loch Frisa has proved herself to be very capable in poor weather (look what an alternative to traditional CalMac ships can achieve!), she is just too small and too slow to provide adequate service on her own. (Slow speed has a consequence not just for how long it takes to cross, but how many journeys can be completed in a day, and how easily the timetable can be made to co-ordinate with public transport).

We have also asked for the first sailing of the day to leave 30 minutes earlier, in order to arrive in time for the 07:45 bus to Glasgow; for departure times to be slightly adjusted for consistency; and for ways to provide a later final return ferry on Sundays to be explored (which would be more convenient for weekend trips away).

Samso System trial moving ahead

We’ll finish on some really good news. The islander prioritisation system that we have lobbied hard for and Transport Minister Jenny Gilruth promised to trial, is moving ahead. Initial discussions with Transport Scotland and CalMac have begin this week, with the objective of at least having the first elements of the system in place sometime this summer. Joining Mull in the trial are our neighbouring islands of Coll and Tiree.

4 thoughts on “Medical protocol improvements, Samso system and more…

  1. You said that the structural changes where ‘just removal of a fridge’. That’s not true, is it? A fridge counter that was a fire barrier was removed.
    Subsequently, there was an inspection, which reported: “An MCA Surveyor has visited the vessel [MV Pentalina] to undertake an inspection of the area of concern. During this visit discrepancies were uncovered with respect to structural fire protection in way of the passenger accommodation and the corridor providing access to the crew accommodation and Galley Servery.

    “The local Marine Office is working closely with the operator to agree a solution to the area concerned. The vessel remains out of commercial service at this time.”

    So it is rather more serious than you indicated.

    1. Hi Alastair. It was a minor issue, both in terms of intent (it was not deliberate), and in terms of the work needed to rectify it. You are absolutely right that the problem was that the fridge formed part of the fire break – but that was not known to Pentland Ferries when they did the work, and nor was it spotted by repeated years of inspection by the MCA.
      What was the intent of the RMT when they issued press releases describing Andrew Banks as ‘a pirate with blatant disregard to safety’? Was it to fix a safety issue, or was it to publicly shame him? It was clearly the latter, since had their only interest been safety they would simply have let the MCA do their job, just like they do when they become aware of any non-conformance on any ship – CalMac included.
      When was the last time the RMT issued a press release branding the MD of CalMac a pirate with no care for safety, because a non-conformance was found on a CalMac ship?

  2. Winter timetable – If you’re going to have first sailing of day leaving Craignure half hour earlier and you don’t have two vessels,that means first sailing leaving Oban 0454am. Not much use.Interesting to know how many people regularly or for one off catch the 0745 bus to Glasgow.

    1. The departure half-hour earlier is only in reference to the two-vessel timetable. We’ve asked it to move from 07:00 to 06:30.
      There is already an 06:30 departure on the single-vessel timetable, so no need to change that. But we are also asking that we never get the single-vessel Loch Frisa service anyway. In answer to your question about how often the 07:45 bus is used in winter – not very often, because its very rarely even an option. But people have begun using it thanks to the 06:30 that the LF operates when on her own.

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