CalMac listen but can’t find any answers

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By Hugh Boag

The widespread disruption of the Arran ferries since the start of the new year has already cost the island economy ‘millions of pounds’, it was said this week.

There are also fears that many of visitors who were caught up in the fiasco will never return to Arran in winter again, damaging attempts to make the island a year round destination.

Now there are demands for Caledonian MacBrayne bosses to adopt a more ‘can do’ attitude to keep Arran’s lifeline ferry services running.

Top CalMac chiefs were on Arran this week to answer questions from the Isle of Arran Ferry Committee as to why things went so badly wrong in the days immediately following the New Year holidays when cancelled sailings left hundreds of visitors and locals stranded on the island.

And figures unveiled at the meeting by chairman Iain Thomson showed that of the 292 timetabled sailings since the start of the year 120 had not sailed – a 41 per cent cancellation rate which he said the island was ‘unable to sustain’.

This is in part due to the fact that the route being serviced by two smaller vessels, the MV Isle of Arran and MV Hebridean Isles, who are unable to operate in windy conditions, while the MV Caledonian Isles is in for its annual refit. It returned to service on Friday.

At the specially convened meeting of the ferry committee on Tuesday to which the Banner, along with leading hoteliers and others were invited, CalMac managing director Robbie Drummond, operations director Robert Morrison and new communications director Stuart Wilson answered prearranged questions on the disruption and what actions could be taken to prevent it happening again.

However, there were few answers forthcoming with CalMac admitting:

  • There is no guarantee the same thing won’t happen next year as there is little ‘wriggle room’ for the MV Caledonian Isles refit and no chance of a bigger replacement boat.
  • They don’t know when, or even if, Gourock will be able to be used as the port of refuge, with Campbeltown now even being considered.
  • The ageing fleet is under increasing strain as it will be at least two years before the MV Glen Sannox and her sister ship are ready.
  • It will be another 18 months before there is a new ticketing system, replacing the outdated manual one.
  • Demands for a relief crew to help ferries make additional sailings have been repeatedly rejected by Transport Scotland.
  • Mr Drummond also told the meeting there is no long term strategic plan for ports and vessels for the next 3o years something which he had been strongly arguing for and, in what he described as ‘short-termism’ he said CalMac had only two years of their six year contract to run.

But Mr Thomson accused the company of a reluctance to step outside their contract for the good of the travelling public. ‘There is a no can do attitude and we need a can do attitude,’ he said.

And independent traveller representative Neil Arthur said there had been a total lack of investment in the fleet for the last 13 years, which was half of what it had been in the previous 13 years.

Arran Dairies managing director Alastair Dobson, who represents business interests on the committee said it was a hard fact that there was going to be no change in present ferry situation for at least two years.

He said: ‘There was a time when there was criticism that the boat went to Gourock too much. What would we give for a three ferry a day service just now. We have to accept there is no Gourock, no new boat coming, visitors getting stranded the community increasingly frustrated and businesses which are going to stop working again.

‘We need to get communication right for tourists, the community and business so that everyone knows just what the ferry is going to do on a day to day basis.’

Arran Economic Group chairman Tom Tracey added: ‘We need to do better with what we have got.’

Pg 2 lead: Could Campbeltown be any port in a storm for Arran ferry?

The possibility of Campbeltown being used as a mainland port for the Arran ferry is to be considered by CalMac, it was agreed this week.

However the Isle of Arran Ferry committee made it clear that while they thought it a possibility in an extreme situation they would not support it as a port of refuge as has relatively poor transport links.

The topic came up doing a long discussion on the urgent need for the ferry to have a port of refuge, since Gourock was no longer available

CalMac managing director Robbie Drummond said he did not know when or if the harbour at Gourock would be able to be used again as it required extensive work, not just to the linkspan, but to the outer concrete structure. He said port owners CMAL (Caledonian Maritme Assets Ltd) were currently looking at a list of options but he was not yet aware what these were.

Other options were considered including Wemyss Bay but Mr Morrison said that while the Isle of Arran could dock there it would not have helped during the recent weather.

The meeting was asked if Campbeltown was an option and it was agreed that despite being 140 miles from Glasgow it should be considered but only as a last-ditch option as not as a port of refuge.

Dunoon was the next suggestion where there is a linkspan which has not been used for nine years, and this will be looked at

Arran Economnic Group chairman Tom Tracey, thinking outside the box, even came up with Rothesay as an option, if boats were sailing from there.

Throughout the debate there was no mention of Troon until Linda Johnston brought it up. But it was quickly dismissed by CalMac as, they said, it was ‘equally badly affected as Ardrossan’ and ‘not a reasonable alternative’.

Interestingly however they said work was underway which could improve the harbour and they did not rule out using it once this work was done in specific reference to the development work at Ardrossan.

The meeting began with a discussion on events surrounding the new year holiday chaos.

CalMac operations director Robert Morrison explained it had been an almost ‘perfect storm’ which had led to the widespread disruption from January 2 which had, very usually, seen sailings stormed off across the whole network.

He was asked why the Caledonian Isles had to go in for its annual refit in January and he explained the schedule to service the 33 boats in the fleet was a very tight 26 weeks which had to be arranged a year in advance, when they could not have known weather conditions.

However Auchrannie managing director Linda Johnston explained that the day after New Year was one of the island’s busiest days of the year when the island was full and relying on the two smaller boats meant there was a ‘high likelihood’ that something would go wrong.

He said that with hindsight they may have been able to keep the Caley Isles in service for one or two days, but there is no guarantee it would have sailed and it may have missed its dry dock berthing spot at Gourock.

However, members felt that removing the Caley Isles the day after new year was a ‘bad plan’ and they should have created more space around the holiday period.

As is known the widespread cancellation of services on January 2 led to widespread traffic problems in Brodick which the police eventually had to deal with. Arran sergeant Dougie Robertson said drivers were getting mixed messages and that ‘tempers became frayed’ with only drivers with a ‘lucky ticket’ getting on the boats. He praised the staff at the pier who he said ‘worked like Trojans’.

Mr Morrison and Mr Drummond agreed they would look at the Caley Isles going in a couple of days later next year, but gave no guarantee it would be possible. They also said they would look as the suggestions that it go in for its refit in November or March instead but said this could pose difficulties with the ‘legal requirements’ of servicing the boats.’

Chairman Iain Thomson asked if Arran could not have a more robust boat such as the MV Clansman or the MV Hebridies, which have previously covered the route. ‘The smaller boats are not fit for purpose at this time of year. We should have a bigger boat.’

However, he was told this was now impossible as they were needed on routes such as Coll and Tiree which could not be served by the MV Isle of Arran because of the dangers a recent incident had highlighted.

There was also a wide ranging discussion on the decision to run a shuttle service between Lochranza and Claonaig on Sunday January 5 which saw hundreds of cars and foot passengers queueing to get on.

While it was agreed there had been an urgent need for the service but there was criticism of the way it had been advertised with members concerned that drivers had turned up thinking they were guaranteed to get off the island, which was not the case. There was also concern that hundreds of foot passengers had arrived in Cloanaig unaware there were no forward transport links there.

The CalMac chiefs agreed that this was something which could be looked at but Mr Drummond did not commit to CalMac providing onward transport at any destination as CalMac ‘was not a bus company’.

Another bone of contention was the ‘mixed messages’ which went out on the CalMac app, social media and the company website which communication director Stuart Wilson said they were working hard to fully co-ordinate.

Community council chairman Bill Calderwood said what was needed was: ‘Clear, concise, consistent communication of clarity and brevity.’

Mr Wilson explained that they were attempting to create ‘single point of truth’ across seven platforms so that all the official statements coming from the company were all compatible.

He said a ‘mate at the port’ telling someone the 7am sailing would be going, when it was not, may think they were helping but this could simply lead to further confusion.

Linda Johnston said Auchrannie had 300 people on site at New Year and since she said the resort accounted for 25 per cent of all visitors to the island in a year it was important that they were made aware of any last minute changes in sailings.  She was assured they and other hotels would receive this information from the port.

Mrs Johnston added: ‘We want to be worldwide tourist destination but the ferry situation is not helping, with Mr Thomson adding: ‘People who came for a New Year break will never come back because of their experience.’

VisitArran’s Sheila Gilmore also raised concern about the yellow ‘be aware’ warning introduced three years ago which she said put people off travelling.

Alastair Dobson asked what parameters were there to use the flag as he said: ‘For tourists it is still a bit like Chinese whispers.’

Mr Morrison said it had been introduced at the request of passengers but they could look at how it was used.