Winter Reliability

<<<UPDATED MAY 2020>>>

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

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. Winter reliability is now the users’ top concern.

To try and put some firm numbers to the perception that service reliability is declining, MIFC have compiled CalMac’s cancellation records for the entire CalMac network over the past 21 winters (we love a good spreadsheet).

The graph above is one of the key outputs from that work. It shows very clearly that the rate of cancellations has been progressively increasing. Not only are cancellations increasing on the Oban-Craignure route, but across almost every route on the entire network. Below is the graphing for other major routes:

There will of course be lots of route-specific issues at play here, and it should be noted that not all routes show the same decline – for example Ulapool-Stornoway does not show an increase over the same period. The Minor vessels generally fair better too, with their decline in performance being less pronounced. In winter 19/20 the Oban Craignure service bucked the general trend, and had an improved performance over 18/19 – we think because the Clansman, a far more capable vessel than the Isle of Mull, was re-deployed to the route frequently.

It is clear however, that there is a network-wide general decline in weather-resilience.

The defence frequently cited for the decline is worsening weather, but we have never been shown any evidence that our winters are getting worse in any way that might cause a ferry to cancel more frequently. Nevertheless, to find out whether declining winter weather is indeed the cause, we set out to examine the weather records ourselves.

We have purchased the wind records for Dunstaffnage weather station, the closest Met Office station to Mull. From those records we ave created a ‘wind index’ that is a single number expressing how windy each winter was. You can see the cancellations plotted against the wind index below:

As you can see, our winters vary a lot! Some winters are worse than others, but a ‘bad winter’ is no worse than it was 20 years ago. In fact if anything, the the windiest winters are getting less extreme.

This weather data is very local however, and the further each route is from Oban, the less relevant the Dunstaffnage index will be. So far as Oban-Craignure is concerned however, it is clear that the service is getting much more sensitive to windy weather than it used to.

There is only one physical factor that is clear – the fragile and elderly condition of Argyll & Bute Council-owned Craignure Pier. Incidents like the below, and the obvious lack of up-keep in recent years , it is not difficult to imagine that ship’s Masters will have declining confidence in the ability of the pier to take a bump in poor weather.

Craignure Pier has been benefiting from a lot of ‘catch-up’ maintenance work of late, prompted by our FOI enquiry into maintenance of last year. It was built in 1964 and designed for much smaller, lighter vessels than the likes of the MV Isle of Mull. Upgrade and improvement is needed, but there is no evidence that the concrete structure is significantly compromised. Things like fenders, lighting and the linkspan have been neglected, and reassuringly, these have all been getting more attention of late.

Throughout the 21 year period we have examined, there have been no significant changes to the physical tools being used – we have the same pier and the same ferry. Yet, the reliability of the service is declining. If not the weather, then what are the causes?

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. NONE of the above should infer criticism of individual Masters – sometimes it is easy for frustrations caused by cancellation to infer criticism of individuals on the bridge making difficult, professional decisions. It is not.

So – the solution to this problem will not come quickly, but we will keep it to the fore whenever relevant issues come up. So for example, when it comes to the replacement of the MV Isle of Mull, a design that enables improved reliability will be paramount. In all discussions about Craignure Pier, maximising reliability will be top of the list.

We will continue to track performance, and update the statistics annually.

Below are some key documents –
Firstly, our presentation on the issue, first made to CalMac MD Robbie Drummond early in 2019:

Second, CalMac’s response to that presentation:

Finally, here is the full Excel spreadsheet with all of the data that you can download. This will be updated annually at the close of each winter season:

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