Winter Reliability

In recent years it has become apparent that the number of bad-weather cancellations suffered on the Oban – Craignure service has been increasing.

In the graph above, you can see the number of cancellations suffered each winter since 1998, both as a percentage of total sailings and as an absolute number. The major influence on the cancellation rate is obviously the weather, hence the variation from year to year. However, the general trend is strongly upward – so either the weather has been getting worse, or the service is becoming more vulnerable to high winds.

In order to answer this, the Ferry Committee examined wind records over the same period, and it was clear that there is no upward trend in the frequency of windy weather.

We have pressed this issue with CalMac on many occasions, but there is no definitive answer to what factors are causing the problem. It is a major issue that impacts on island life severely and needs to be resolved. It is not clear why the MV Isle of Mull, that typically used to fail to sail on a handful of occasions each winter, now has winter cancellation rates as high as 10%.

There is only one physical factor that is clear – the fragile and elderly condition of Craignure Pier. CalMac now have a ‘no bump’ policy in operation in order to avoid damage, meaning that in high winds the ship’s Master has to be much more cautious. Given that the upward trend has been apparent for more than 14 years however, this cannot be the only explanation.

Many influences have been suggested:
– Age of the vessel
– Fear of litigation/blame in the event of damage or injury
– Fear of personal repercussions for the crew, should a decision to sail be questioned
– Unfamiliarity of the Master / Crew to the route and vessel
– No commercial repercussions if a sailing is cancelled (CalMac are a monopoly provider)

Some of these suggestions are less charitable to the company and crew than others, and in the absence of evidence they are speculative. It is certainly our experience that all the CalMac managers we speak to are as frustrated by cancellations as we are.

Therefore in order to progress the issue, the Ferry Committee have undertaken to gather as much information as possible to help point toward causes and solutions. We are doing the following:

  1. We have installed a weather station on Craignure Pier, with live weather data available to view online. Unlike most major ferry ports, there was previously no such facility. This will allow the Master to see in real-time what the wind conditions are, to help inform decisions. It will also help us to build a record of local, reliable wind data.
  2. We have requested cancellation records for every route in the CalMac network, so that we can compare performance. This will show whether the problem is network-wide, or more prevalent on different types of vessel / route.
  3. We have requested cancellation data from other ferry operators, both in the UK and abroad. This will allow us to compare the performance of CalMac and prove/disprove company-specific causes.
  4. We have requested up-to-date weather statistics to update our wind analysis.

At the time of writing, we are awaiting the return of much of this data. As soon as we have compiled it, we will publish an update and then press forward with a fully-informed argument for improvement.

UPDATE 23/02/19

On Monday 18th February Robbie Drummond, the MD of CalMac attended one of our regular meetings. We presented our findings from the work completed so far – above is a key chart from the presentation. You can download the full presentation here:

Mr Drummond has undertaken to discuss our findings with senior management and work closely with us in the future on the matter. It’s a complex issue, but we made good progress in engaging Mr Drummond with the problem, thanks to having strong evidence to back up our argument. We’ll keep you posted…

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