Ferry clever solution for a sustainable future

A catamaran can carry more vehicles, is lighter and requires less power than a monohull ferry. Picture: Donald MacLeod
A catamaran can carry more vehicles, is lighter and requires less power than a monohull ferry. Picture: Donald MacLeod
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Benefits for the economy and the environment, says Alf Baird

Scotland has a long and costly history of operating ferries to its many islands. Traditionally, we rely on heavy monohull (single hull) vessels but new options are on the horizon, offering the potential to not only drastically reduce costs, and reduce public subsidies, but to also enhance operations. Such a “sea change” however, requires a new way of thinking,` with little room for a blinkered traditional approach.

In recent research undertaken by Edinburgh Napier University in Europe and the Middle-East, medium-speed (i.e. 16-20 knot) vehicle-carrying catamaran ferries were found to offer at least 50 per cent improved efficiency when compared with the monohull ferries commonly used here. Total operating costs are also around 50 per cent less for the catamaran, with lower fuel consumption resulting in substantially reduced CO² emissions.

The catamaran can carry more vehicles, its weight is hundreds of tonnes lighter and it requires less power than a monohull of similar capacity. That also means better manoeuvrability and reduced rolling motion, offering a comfortable journey but and a safer platform to evacuate in the event of an emergency. Medium-speed catamarans also perform well in strong winds, waves and currents, contrary to criticism.

The ‘Cat’ is back

The economics make sense too. Replacing monohulls with catamarans across Scotland’s entire subsidised ferry network would amount to a saving of at least £50 million a year – or more than £1 billion over the estimated 25-year lifetime of the entire Scottish fleet. Moreover, the catamaran’s greater loading capacity would offer an increase in overall fleet capacity, giving scope to raise revenues.

So what is delaying this change? Publicly-owned organisations, that do not really function in a competitive market, often have little incentive to change. Nonetheless, the evidence of much more efficient, lower-cost ferry design solutions is becoming difficult to ignore.

At the same time, pressure is mounting on the public purse. In Greece, for example, some small islands no longer have any ferry services due to subsidies being withdrawn following stringent budget cuts. Scotland is not yet at that stage, but we should not ignore the potential gain from technological efficiencies, especially where they can help improve services and reduce costs and emissions.

Take Pentland Ferries as an example. They have employed a medium-speed catamaran on the notorious Pentland Firth route to Orkney – home to some of the fastest tides and roughest seas in the world – for the past five years. Research has established that service to be so efficient it does not require any subsidy at all. Meanwhile, CO² emissions per car carried are approximately one-third compared to a monohull. Indeed, a competing ferry service operated by Serco NorthLink’s monohull ferry between Scrabster and Stromness soaks up about £10m a year in public subsidy and emits well over 50 per cent more C0² in the process.

Almost 100 ferries need to be replaced

There are other benefits from this move to medium-speed catamarans. Scotland is no longer at the cutting edge of ship design, shipbuilding or innovation; none of today’s successful international ferry designers are based in Scotland and commercial shipbuilding is something we no longer excel at. But that could change. Assembling advanced medium-speed catamaran ferries here in Scotland is another real, potential benefit from any policy change in this sector. Sea Transport Corp in Australia, for example, has mooted plans to ship catamaran kits, creating significant employment opportunities locally.

Almost 100 ferries need to be replaced in Scotland over the next 10-15 years, representing a potential £1bn business opportunity. This would in turn give a useful platform for Scottish exports to the rest of Europe, where up to 1,000 small-to-medium sized vehicle ferries need replaced over the next 15 years; that’s a market worth some £10bn. Such ship assembly could occur very rapidly, although this depends on Scottish Government strategy to change what has become a politicised and increasingly expensive ferries policy.

Clearly, public sector decision makers need to more fully consider employing these superior vessels. They and island communities will need to embrace change to make change happen. However, many islanders have been looking enviously at Orkney’s highly successful catamaran service ever since it was introduced several years ago, so change might be easier than expected. Diminishing public sector budgets, meanwhile, should concentrate the minds of those who have been responsible for some very expensive ferry procurement decisions over the past decade and more.

• Alf Baird is Professor of Maritime Business at Edinburgh Napier University

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