MINISTERS yesterday extended the next Caledonian MacBrayne ferry contract to run for up to eight years to encourage more firms to bid.
This compares to the previous six-year deal, which was awarded to Scottish Government-owned CalMac after the other bidders dropped out of the contest.
The winner will operate 26 west coast routes to the Hebrides and in the Clyde, from Lewis to Kintyre, from October next year. Up to £1 billion of state funding is available to support the largely loss-making services – the equivalent of £125 million a year.
Transport minister Derek Mackay, who announced the start of the competition, also moved to allay fears that the routes would be split up, or “unbundled”, by confirming they would be kept as one contract.
He said: “We are looking to award a contract that runs for a period of up to eight years.
“This will make it more attractive to potential bidders by giving the operator more opportunity to deliver service improvements and efficiencies over the course of the contract.”
However, the minister admitted he did not know whether firms would lodge bids because of the cost involved.
Ship management firm V.Ships and Gourock-Dunoon operator Western Ferries abandoned the race for the last CalMac contract, saying it was too restrictive. Industry sources predicted neither would bid again.
However, Serco, which runs NorthLink ferries to Orkney and Shetland, said it was potentially interested.
A spokesman said: “We are currently evaluating the opportunity.”
An industry source said: “It looks like being a two-horse race between CalMac and Serco.”
In 2012, CalMac’s parent body lost NorthLink, to Serco, sparking anger from unions about changes to workers’ conditions.
Mr Mackay added: “I also remain clear that there will be no unbundling of services, and reiterate that the tender will be take forward as a single contract.”
A shortlist of bidders will be asked to submit tenders in June, with the winner to be announced in May next year.
CalMac’s current contract was extended by three years from 2013 after the tender process was delayed by the Scottish Government’s ferries review.
However, it has been decided not to add any local authority-run ferries – such as the Corran ferry, near Fort William – to the CalMac contract following the review.
The Rail, Maritime and Transport union (RMT), which represents many CalMac staff, warned of potential trouble if guarantees over their conditions were not made.
General secretary Mick Cash said: “RMT has registered its total opposition to the threat to CalMac workers’ and communities’ livelihoods from the ideological pursuit of re-tendering in the Scottish ferries industry.
“We are again making it clear the doubt and anxiety caused to CalMac workers by another re-tendering process could be alleviated by a clear commitment from the [Scottish] Government to honour existing employment and pensions protections in the new contract, and that such a commitment should be given to CalMac unions immediately.
“We have made it clear that if RMT do not receive the basic assurances from the SNP government over maintaining existing contractual employment and pension protections for our members, then a serious industrial situation will arise.”
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