As a result of the multi-week suspension of the Mallaig – Lochboisdale service earlier in the year, CalMac management undertook to reassess their ‘Route Prioritisation Framework’. That’s the set of rules they follow during breakdowns to determine how to allocate the boats they have available.
When CalMac are faced with the moral and operational puzzle of deciding how to allocate vessels at times of disruption, there are no easy choices. They aim for the least-worst outcome. Sometimes there is cause to question aspects of emergency deployment decisions, but broadly speaking they seem to make the right decisions on most occasions.
Across the islands there is mutual understanding that ships have to be shared at times of stress. A new framework to guide those decisions is not going to be a magic bullet, as CalMac themselves stress. It can’t get over the core problem which is a shortage of vessels and repeated breakdowns.
It’s good that CalMac went to some effort to draw up the draft proposals with the help of community representatives (The Ferries Community Board) before putting them out to broader consultation. But unfortunately Mull and Iona had no representation on the FCB at the time. Consequently we think there are some aspects of the draft that would have benefitted from a Mull and Iona perspective.
We’d like to hear your views to help inform our response, as well as encouraging you to complete the CalMac form linked at the bottom.
The points we think are contentious are:
Routes will be prioritised by weighting the different types of traffic they carry. Island residents 50%; Commercial vehicles 40%; and Leisure vehicles [tourists] 10%.
We are concerned that could lead to ‘tourist-heavy’ routes like Craignure-Oban being given lower priority than ‘commercial heavy’ routes like Kennacraig-Islay. In economic terms, car loads of holidaymakers are as valuable as tankers of whisky. It’s also unclear how CalMac would distinguish between ‘leisure’ travellers (ie tourists) and islanders. We’ve always been told that discriminating on those grounds was not possible.
The only fair way to assess the needs of a route is to count total traffic. Trying to weight a route’s importance by making some travellers less important than others could result in some perverse outcomes. All passengers are competing for the same deck space, so restricting a route because it is ‘tourist heavy’ will impact islanders just as much as anyone else.
The severity of disruption will be assessed by comparing the total proportion of sailings disrupted against the original timetable for last season. This assumes that the published timetable is ‘normal’ and not itself the result of disruption or limited vessel availability. Our Craignure-Oban Frisa-only timetable is not ‘normal’. We have the Loch Frisa on her own because there are vessel shortages, not because the Frisa provides an adequate service. So benchmarking against a timetable certainly wouldn’t give a fair outcome for Mull.
CalMac will aim to limit the impact on any single route to around 1 week at a time. It’s acknowledged by CalMac that this will lead to more complex schedules during periods of disruption, and the impact of a single breakdown event could be felt across more routes as a result. It will mean that the pain during a crisis will be more evenly shared, which seems reasonable. So this does seem like an even-handed approach. However, if such an approach is applied to unplanned disruption, it should be applied to planned disruption also. We have 2 separate 4-week-long periods of Fisa-only service this winter that will fail this ‘1 week maximum’ rule, and should be shortened.
Aside from these three points, there are several positive aspects to the proposals, including a promise of increased consultation and clearer communication. There are also some common-sense proposals, such as making routes that serve mainland and fixed-link destinations (eg Campbeltown and Armadale) lower-priority.
At this stage, these are just draft proposals, and CalMac have emphasised to us that nothing is set in stone. They want as much user-feedback as possible to help guide them. So please do read the full proposals and respond to the consultation over this weekend. It closes at midnight on Sunday 24th.