How the arrival – or not – of Glen Sannox affects the service to Mull & Iona.

We have sought assurances from CalMac that this will be the last winter where the Craignure-Oban service is operated by Loch Frisa on her own. Weather-resilient and locally crewed she may be, but the vessel that was presented as as our new ‘core’ ship has neither the speed nor the capacity that the route requires.

CalMac MD Robbie Drummond has agreed that the Frisa cannot deliver an adequate service on her own, and they will deliver continuous 2-vessel service as soon as they can. But their ability to deliver it relies on having more vessels in the fleet than they do right now.

To summarise the situation, there is no chance of continuous 2-vessel operation until Glen Sannox is in service (AKA hull 801). That should allow a cascade of ships ultimately benefitting Craignure-Oban. The current delivery is 31st March 2024. So that should mean that we will have an additional ferry six months before the winter timetable starts, and next winter we will have continuous 2-vessel service, right?

Wrong. It seems that CalMac do not yet have enough confidence in successful introduction of the Glen Sannox to add her to scheduled services next winter. They are going to devise next winter’s timetables on the assumption that the Glen Sannox can’t contribute. From CalMac’s perspective that sounds like prudent precaution – they don’t want to timetable services that they can’t deliver. But its a pretty poor indictment of the 801/802 build that CalMac still can’t be sure of having her services six years after the originally planned delivery date.

If the Glen Sannox is delivered at the end of March, and if she proves reliable, then winter timetables will be adjusted. But for now, winter 24/25 will be scheduled without her – and that will include more periods of ‘Frisa only’ for us.

The irony here is that the Loch Frisa would not have been purchased at all, had 801 and 802 been delivered on time. The prime motivator for her purchase was increased ‘resilience’ (a euphemism for moving ferries to other routes) for a network struggling with a decrepit fleet. We never asked for a second ferry to operate alongside the IOM in winter – all that we asked for were a few additional sailings by the IOM at the beginning and the end of the day. Despite costing just £600k per year, these extra sailings were deemed unaffordable.

Frisa however was bought at the cost of £12m, and has added to annual operating costs (and therefore subsidy) by several millions every year. Transport Scotland concluded that ‘fleet resilience’ was worth £12m in capital and increased operating costs in 2021, but service improvement to Mull was not worth £600k in 2019.

The Loch Frisa is a permanent fixture for the medium term (at least until new replacements for the Isle of Mull are delivered), and is dedicated to our route. So when the Frisa is finally given the continuous assistance in winter that she needs, we will have achieved the ‘island focussed’ winter service we asked for – but at far higher cost than could have been the case.

So what changes would you like for next winter’s timetables?

CalMac will soon be asking us for timetable proposals for next winter. So if you have specific requests please email us about them. In general however, our requests for improvements (based on recent feedback) will be:

  • Continuous 2-vessel service for Craignure-Oban during winter
  • Earlier and (particularly) later sailings on Sundays
  • Better co-ordination with public transport, particularly trains
  • Longer operating hours on the Fishnish-Lochaline service, particularly later return options.
  • Improved co-ordination between Iona and Oban services

If you have other requests for winter 24/25, whether specific or general, please let us know.

Train connections in Oban

During periods of Frisa-only operation, train connections in Oban are poor. When initially published the timetable looked like the below – and included many train connections that could only be made by Hussain Bolt or Doctor Who. Primarily the result of the Frisa’s slow speed, most of these poor connections could be resolved if CalMac took a more flexible approach to their insistence that foot passengers board no later than 10 minutes before sailing. There simply isn’t the evidence that a full 10 minutes is needed. FOI responses demonstrate that what is achieved is not punctuality, but routine early departure. It seems quite bizarre that an arbitrary rule that primarily enables ferries to leave early, appears to be more important than maintaining public transport connections.

It is a topic we will be taking up again with Robbie Drummond when he attends our AGM on November 29th. Meanwhile, most of the highlighted ‘connections’ below have been deleted from CalMac’s timetable. (note this is the FRISA ONLY timetable, and we are now in a period of 2 vessel service when this does not apply)

Contacting our local port offices is far too difficult

If you need to make a livestock booking; ensure a request-only sailing operates; or buy a commercial ticket, you have to speak to (or visit) one of our local port offices (primarily Craignure). We regularly get reports of sailing requests not getting through, livestock unable to get a booking and commercial traffic being hindered – simply because of the difficulty in getting through on the phone.

The reasons for this are unclear, but may be related to understaffing and the added complexity and time needed to process ticket sales on CalMac’s new platform. Our hard-working local staff do a great service for us, so this is no criticism of them. But too often both Oban and Craignure offices just don’t have anyone available who can answer the phone – and that’s regardless of whether the call is coming from a passenger or from CalMac’s own call centre in Gourock.

This is a big problem, particularly for farmers trying to move livestock, and Iona residents trying to book request sailings. We want to assure you that we are pressing CalMac for a speedy resolution.

CalMac to get next contract without competition

Transport Minister Fiona Hyslop has confirmed what has been assumed for some time now – it’s planned that David MacBrayne Ltd will be awarded the next CalMac contract without competitive tendering.

The two previous tendering rounds for the Clyde and Hebrides Ferry Services (CHFS) contract were expensive and time consuming, and delivered an inflexible service defined by the timetable rather than need. In addition, the outcome was always a foregone conclusion. Because of the small number of companies with an appetite to bid for such a big contract, only the first CHFS contract had any kind of serious competition (from Serco). Last time around there was no competition at all (Serco’s bid having been deemed non-compliant).

Below is how David MacBrayne welcomed the award in 2016. There is quite a contrast between promise and delivery seven years on. It should be said that most of the blame lies with the other two arms of the ‘tripartite’ – Transport Scotland and the government’s ship procurement arm, CMAL.

The one potential change that the government have ruled out before any kind of consultation is unbundling. ‘Unbundling’ of the contract into smaller parcels open to greater competition (as is done in Norway) is almost always mentioned in the same breath as ‘privatisation’. The two are different things entirely, and no-one but no-one is advocating for an unsubsidised privatisation free-for-all. But for reasons that successive Transport Ministers have never been able to explain to us, unbundling is not even up for discussion – despite one of the potential outcomes being community control of our own ferry services.

Officials from Transport Scotland will be at the Community Enterprise Centre An Roth in Craignure on Monday evening (20th) between 18:00 and 20:00 if you would like to give your thoughts on the intention to award the next CHFS contract to David MacBrayne.

Below is the full text of the Ministerial statement.

3 thoughts on “How the arrival – or not – of Glen Sannox affects the service to Mull & Iona.

  1. One request for next winter on the loch frisa only route would be for the 06.30 am sailing to be moved to 7.30 am or for an addition sailing in between the 06.30 and the 10.30. The 06.30 isn’t convenient for anyone who is travelling to work, for appointments or shopping as there is a long wait for things to open. Then 10.30 the whole morning has gone before arriving at Oban. 🙂

  2. It should be possible to devise a timetable, for both one boat and two, that makes the most of the available train connections. I travel from Mull to Glasgow and back most weeks for work. Rather than take up valuable deck space each way and to reduce my carbon emissions, I would happy leave the car in Craignure and take the train if the connections worked. But I rarely do because the published connections often do not work from a practical point of view. Particularly if you need to travel on the last train and/ or ferry of the day when you really cannot afford for things to go wrong.

    As trains are often delayed on the single-track West Highland Line there needs to be at least half an hour leeway transferring from train to ferry. When the Frisa is operating at least 15 perhaps 20 minutes are needed between ferry arrival and train departure to allow both for the fact that foot passengers are held on the boat until all the vehicles have been unloaded and the longer walk from the link-span to the platform.

  3. depends on calmac as Troon to Brodic consultation one option was 3 ferry service could be for while if two ferry then one would be available

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