I read with interest Dr Eamonn Butler’s interpretation of recent events at Ferguson Marine Engineering Ltd in the Platform column (26 August) and was disappointed by his apparent lack of understanding of some key aspects of ferry service provision and his misinformed comments on CalMac Ferries Ltd and its fleet.
Firstly, claiming we have a monopoly on ferry services on the west coast of Scotland betrays a poor knowledge of Government ferry procurement policy. We won the contract to operate Clyde and Hebrides Ferry Services (CHFS) from 2016-2022 in a keenly fought tendering competition against a large multi-national private sector operator and are prepared to do so again if necessary when the contract is next due for renewal.
It is the terms of that contract, set by Scottish Government, that brings all of our routes into a single bundle. We have no say on this, so cannot be accused of “fighting off any attempt to introduce competition” on our routes. The Government’s case for the single bundle is to avoid operators cherry-picking the most lucrative routes to the detriment of less attractive routes, and it also improves resilience for lifeline services by giving the operator the ability to move vessels about from one area to another.
CalMac Ferries Ltd is a private company which operates under the Companies Act and must tender for all contracts. It receives no other government support as this too would be contrary to state aid rules. It has to win business and operate profitably or go out of business and there is no question that had CalMac Ferries Ltd been unsuccessful in the CHFS bid, then the company would have ceased to exist.
Customer feedback for our services are very positive with externally verified CSAT satisfaction levels of 91 per cent, and we also regularly receive awards, including Ferry Operator of the Year 2018 at the National Transport Awards. This prestigious award was open to ferry operators running services from ports in the UK and Ireland, and we had to show how we had improved services and facilities, backed with figures on performance, reliability, passenger growth and customer satisfaction.
It is true that the average age of the fleet that we are required to deploy under the terms of the contract is a cause for concern. However, our crews and asset management teams work extremely hard to keep these vessels operating effectively and efficiently. We do, of course, also have some very fine comfortable and modern vessels, such as the MV Finlaggan and MV Loch Seaforth, which are very popular with customers.
The issues associated with operating in some of the most testing waters in Europe, cannot be overstated, and with passenger numbers soaring by 37 per cent in the last five years, there is no question that delivering these services can be challenging. But with reliability and punctuality levels sitting at 99.5 per cent, everyone associated with the company can be proud of the efforts they put in day-in and day-out.
Robbie Drummond is managing director of CalMac Ferries Ltd