Transport Scotland have announced the conclusion of a deal with Pentland Ferries to charter one of their two catamaran ferries from April 18th. But rather than the Pentalina as was widely expected, the larger Alfred will be hired into the fleet. The Alfred currently operates services to Orkney across the Pentland Firth, so the company’s older and smaller Pentalina will be called back into service to cover there.
The Alfred will be chartered for nine months, at a cost of £9 million (including operating costs like fuel and berthing fees). She will be crewed by Pentland Ferries’ staff and used for what CalMac describe as “resilience purposes”. This appears to mean that she will be used flexibly, and not deployed permanently to any one route. So in the event of a breakdown, the Alfred will called upon, either to work directly on the route affected or to relieve another vessel that can be moved. It is also suggested that she could operate some additional non-bookable freight services. Whilst it is not specified, it’s most likely that Islay will be the focus for that.
What is certain is that the Alfred will not come to Mull. Her vehicle ramp is offset to the port side and therefore will not fit the Craignure linkspan. The number of ports she can operate to will be quite limited, and it’s thought that her most likely deployments will be to Arran and Islay.
Launched: 2019, Vung Tao, Vietnam
Cost: £14 million
Capacity: 98 cars and 430 passengers
Dimensions: 84.5m long x 22m wide
With a nine month charter, the Alfred will be in service through until the Glen Sannox arrives, which is now expected to be the end of the year. It’s noteworthy that construction of the Alfred began in April 2017 – one year later than the Glen Sannox. She has been in service to Orkney since November 2019, and cost less than 30% of the original contract price for the Glen Sannox. Or 8% of the final bill.
The arrival of the Alfred is very welcome news for a ferry service in crisis. Three major vessels remain out of action (Clansman, Caledonian Isles and Hebridean Isles) and the winter overhaul schedule has disintegrated. It’s a sign of desperation that such a large sum (£1m per month) is being spent on a temporary relief vessel.
To put the cost of this £9m short-term charter into context – the entire ferry cost only £14 million to build. The eight-year old Loch Frisa cost £9.4m to buy and modify. For roughly an additional £3 million, CMAL could have bought the Indonesian catamaran that we advocated for in 2019. She was brand-new and would have been capable of working to all ports in the network with full drive-through operation. She would also have released a major vessel in winter (since she was big enough and fast enough to operate our service on her own), thereby permanently creating a spare vessel for winter resilience relief. Shamefully, that opportunity was deliberately obstructed by CMAL
Although Transport Scotland have found the most expensive means possible of introducing a catamaran to the fleet, it will nevertheless be a good opportunity to demonstrate the advantages of these cost-effective, efficient and productive ships. The Alfred has won awards for her low fuel burn and emissions, and can operate with less than half the number of crew compared to the equivalent CalMac vessel. If we want improvement to our ferry services, we have to find ways of making our money go further – both by reducing the cost to build ferries, as well as operate them. So for example, if the Craignure – Oban service was operated by a pair of medium-speed catamarans like the Alfred, the same number of crew as currently operate the Isle of Mull could run two ferries, with a doubling of frequency and a tripling of capacity.
Coruisk / Loch Frisa timetable published
We have been inundated with stories of missed appointments, failed deliveries, extended and awkward trips away, cancelled journeys and more, due to our current reliance on the small and slow Loch Frisa. It’s also been clear that CalMac are struggling to cope with the frequent and extensive timetable changes they having to make, with ticket sales frozen for periods whilst existing bookings are re-shuffled. If you have tried to buy a ticket recently and all sailings were shown as ‘unavailable’ we advise you to check again. At the time of writing there is now good availability on most sailings for week beginning March 27th, and following weeks are expected to be released for booking soon.
We have been urging CalMac to do all they can to alleviate the problem. The previously-planned deployment of the Loch Tarbert to the Lochaline-Fishnish service (that would have reduced capacity significantly) was cancelled, and the Loch Bhrusda has been covering the Lochinvar’s overhaul period instead. We also asked for the Isle of Mull to call in to Craignure as she passed by on her way back and forth to the Western Isles – but that was deemed not possible.
Instead, the Coruisk was given permission by the MCA to begin operations outside the Clyde a week earlier than her certification normally allows. Instead of heading for Mallaig, she will be operating alongside the Loch Frisa from March 26th through till April 16th, when the Loch Frisa is now scheduled to have her own delayed dry-docking. We will not have a ‘normal’ summer pairing of Isle of Mull / Loch Frisa until mid-May.
The timetable that the Frisa/Coruisk pair will operate is now published on the CalMac website. In the rush there was none of the normal consultation with us on this. Be particularly aware that again, there are ferry-to-train connections of less than the minimum 15 minutes. These are caused by a combination of slow sailing times and long turnarounds. We continue to press CalMac on the need for 20 minute turnarounds, particularly for vessels carrying less than 40 cars each. We have examined sailing records, and early departure of 5 minutes is routine. This appears to indicate that the full 20 minutes is not required – and nor is the 10 minute foot-passenger check-in. These are topics we will be discussing with CalMac management at our next meeting.
New ticketing system
CalMac intend to finally introduce their new ticketing system on April 25th. The company are holding online presentations about the system on March 27th and 30th – if you’d like to attend follow this link.
There are aspects of the new ticketing arrangements that we are not happy with, and are questioning with CalMac. Specifically:
- The intention to invalidate tickets if the 30 minute check-in is missed. This means that if you arrive late for any reason, you would need to buy a new ticket, rather than just joining the un-booked queue as currently. This seems to serve no purpose other than adding stress and expense to passengers.
- If for any reason you do not use the outward portion of a return ticket, your return ticket will be invalidated. As above, this means that you would need to buy a new return ticket (as well as forfeit your car reservation). This is a common occurrence on Mull, where people make last-minute decisions to travel via Lochaline instead of Oban, often due to CalMac’s weather warnings.
- These changes are very significant, and break undertakings given by CalMac in an Island Communities Impact Assessment of last year.
We will continue to make the case for the current ticketing terms to remain unchanged, and will keep you posted.
The MV Corran remains out of service for another month, and the elderly and small Maid of Glencoul battles on. A plan to ban vehicles of more than 3.5t using the ferry when tourist traffic arrives in volume has been dropped, after protests from across Mull, Morvern and Ardnamurchan. Had that happened in conjunction with the current restrictions on the Oban service, it could have had a major impact on freight operators and delivery services.
Meantime, debate about the long-term future of the crossing continues. We ran a survey on the question of a fixed link last month, the full results of which we will publish in due course. But the headline outcome was that more than 80% of the 200+ local respondents said they are in favour of a bridge or tunnel to replace the ferry.
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