West coast’s romance with CalMac has soured

View from a Caledonian MacBrayne ferry as it arrives into Uig from Tarbert in Harris. Picture: Getty
View from a Caledonian MacBrayne ferry as it arrives into Uig from Tarbert in Harris. Picture: Getty
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DISSATISFACTION with its lifeline ferry services has soured the west coast’s romance with CalMac, which has been accused of becoming a pampered dinosaur, writes Dani Garavelli

There can be few people on the west coast of Scotland who see a Caledonian MacBrayne ferry, with its distinctive black and red funnel, without experiencing a surge of emotion.

The MV Clansman, which plies the route between Brodick and Ardrossan. Picture: Donald MacLeod

The MV Clansman, which plies the route between Brodick and Ardrossan. Picture: Donald MacLeod

For an Ayrshire lass like me, the ships meant adventure: day trips up the Firth of Clyde, at once giddily exciting and reassuringly familiar. Whether we ended up sucking a candy dummy on Crocodile Rock or sunning ourselves outside Brodick Castle, it was the boats that stayed with me: the car deck filled with exhaust fumes, the cafeteria and the gulls that hovered around the bow waiting for someone to hold a sandwich within swooping distance.

Later, geography field trips to Arran were once again book-ended by marauding up and down the stairs between the decks. I still have a photograph of a gang of us standing outside in bright dungarees and hideous jumpers, the faces we’ve pulled for the camera obscured by hair which has been whipped up by the breeze.

Such are my memories; they are fleeting, inconsequential things compared with those of the sizeable Hebridean diaspora for whom CalMac ferries meant grannies and uncles and summers in Tiree or Coll, and those of the islanders who stayed put (or came in from elsewhere), for whom they will always mean employment and opportunity and a link to the mainland.

If your home is in the Hebrides, CalMac is woven into the fabric of your life and every disruption to its service has a consequence. “When a wind blows a hoolie and the ferries are off, what ­happens is that by 4pm people are panic-buying, and by 6pm they are coming to blows over the last cabbage,” says writer John MacLeod, who lives in Stornoway. “If they’re off for longer, then you have students who miss exams, or people who can’t get to job interviews, or can’t go on holiday or can’t get offshore to oil rigs.”

When you rely on a service for your quality of life, your feelings are more complex than those of the occasional day-tripper; many islanders have a love/hate relationship with the company that rules Scotland’s western seaboard. For as long as CalMac has existed, there have been grumbles. Residents complain there should be more sailings, faster crossing times, newer vessels, that the ferries sail to the wrong mainland ports, or that a rival island is getting preferential treatment.

Still, CalMac – and David MacBrayne Ltd before it – is such an integral part of the landscape, poems have been written about it. “Unto the Lord belongs the earth, and all that it contains, except the Kyles and the Western Isles, for they are all MacBraynes,” goes one parody of Psalm 24. “When I was a young English teacher in Rothesay, I would ask the children to write about an adventure, their stories would always start: ‘We caught the 6.15am ferry to Wemyss Bay,’” says former Scottish Labour leader Johann Lamont. “It was as if, they couldn’t have an adventure unless they travelled to the mainland.” Whether its boats are transporting people to a new world or back to their old one, CalMac has carved itself an enduring place in the nation’s affection.

When a company carries so much cultural baggage, you mess with it at your peril, as the SNP found when it was accused of putting CalMac at risk of a £1bn privatisation. The threat that the west coast contract, won by CalMac the first time it was put out to tender back in 2006, might pass to Serco this time round has led to fierce campaigning and industrial action by the RMT amidst fears of job losses and a reduction in pension rights. Last week, a second 24-hour strike was averted when First Minister Nicola Sturgeon promised that workers’ demands over job security and terms and conditions would be looked at again.

Transport Minister Derek Mackay insists the ferry service is not being privatised with the Scottish government committed to retaining control over routes, services, timetables and fares. But the contract to run 26 mostly loss-making routes comes with up to £125m-a-year state funding; and the thought of it falling into the hands of a company investigated by the Serious Fraud Office and banned from bidding for public sector contracts after overcharging the government has alarmed both politicians and campaigners.

At the heart of the row are European Union rules which successive Scottish governments, advised by civil servants, have agreed mean the contract must be put out to tender. Critics of the move insist either government could have mounted a challenge on the grounds that CalMac is providing a lifeline ­service.

Last time round (when Labour was in control), opposition and backbench MPs saw off the threat to split up the routes into smaller bundles, but the process went ahead. CalMac was the only company to submit a bid and so won the contract. This time, it’s a two-horse race between CalMac and Serco, but campaigners believe the odds are stacked against CalMac because of its hefty pensions obligation.

In 2012, Serco won the £243m contract to run the ferry services between the mainland and Orkney and Shetland from NorthLink, a subsidiary of the publicly-owned David MacBrayne Ltd, with some campaigners claiming the CalMac bid was returned unopened. Soon after winning, Serco announced job losses and cuts to services. The company also introduced paid-for lounges and installed dividers on couches to prevent passengers from sleeping.

The fear is that if Serco wins the much bigger west coast contract, more cuts could follow, with 200 jobs at the HQ in Gourock headquarters thought to be at risk. Cat Hobbs, director of We Own It, a campaign group to keep public services in public ownership, points out that the privatisation of the railways led to higher-than-inflation fare increases and overcrowded carriages, and says surveys show 64% of the public distrust outsourcing companies such as Serco. “There are reasons there’s conflict between making a profit and providing a good public service and when you look at the kind of things that have happened with Serco in other contexts, I think that’s borne out,” she says.

The name David MacBrayne has been associated with west coast maritime transport since the businessman took sole control of a steamship company carrying freight and passengers in 1870. He was able to cash in on the Victorian tourist boom, but by the late 1920s the company was on its knees and was jointly bought by the London Midland and Scottish Railway and Coast Lines. Eventually, however, it was brought into public ownership and, in 1973, it was merged with the state-owned Caledonian Steam packet Company to form Caledonian MacBrayne.

Today CalMac Ferries Ltd employs 1,342 people; in 2014, it carried nearly 4.7 million passengers, 1.1 million cars and 93,000 commercial vehicles on 130,000 sailings. In the summer, its ferries transport tourists – the surfers, the bird-watchers, the island-hoppers – and all year round, supplies and islanders and goods for export that make it possible for local businesses to survive. While flights to the Hebrides are expensive, the Scottish government is committed to the Road Equivalent Tariff (RET), which involves setting ferry fares based on the cost of travelling the same distance by road.

The west coast ferries have certainly loomed large in Lamont’s life. Brought up in Glasgow, her parents were both from Tiree and the family would move back for the summer. Her uncle was the skipper of the Claymore, which ran from Oban to the inner Hebrides, and her dad worked first on cargo ships and then on ships crossing to Skye, Barra, Uist and the small isles. Later, her brother and his wife moved to Lewis, so Lamont makes many journeys across the Minch; and then, of course, there was her time in Rothesay, which saw her travelling back and forth to Weymss Bay or from Rhubodach to Colintraive.

Lamont believes a reliable ferry service is essential to support fragile economies and to stem the flow of young people away from the islands. “It’s not just about tourism, it’s about creating business,” she says. “The internet has opened up all sorts of opportunities; it means that so long as you can get your goods on and off, anything is possible.”

Lamont fears privatisation could lead to popular routes such as Ardrossan to Arran and Ullapool to Stornoway taking priority over less popular ones. “Once you accept the service is going [out to tender] the task of a minister is to create a contract that isn’t attractive to people who simply want to make a quick buck.”

The problem with any discussion of CalMac, of course, is that the big state-owned behemoth it conjures up no longer exists. When the decision was first taken to put the contract out for tender in 2006, it was split into two separate companies: Caledonian Maritime Assets Ltd (CMAL) owns the harbours and vessels, while CalMac Ferries Ltd operates as a private company which receives a subsidy to deliver the Clyde and Hebrides Ferry Services contract. The company also created the offshore company CalMac (Crewing) Guernsey Ltd in order to avoid paying employers’ national insurance contributions.

Even before the company’s split, CalMac was coming under increased scrutiny; in 2005, maritime transport expert Roy Pedersen branded the service “antiquated” and “over-pampered.” Others warn of an ageing fleet, an unwillingness to stand up to the RMT and a failure to learn from companies in other countries which run smaller vessels on a wider variety of routes. But recently, criticism has mounted. In particular, residents on Lewis are furious about the way their wishes were ignored in the building of the Loch Seaforth – a £42m super-ferry – to replace their existing vessels.

The islanders wanted to retain two smaller ferries, with each providing back-up for the other. Instead, the Loch Seaforth was procured by the Scottish Government via a PFI deal. Its size meant Stornoway pier had to be extended, and a series of mishaps led to it entering service 20 months later than originally planned. As former Labour MP Brian Wilson has pointed out, it is owned by Lloyds Bank and leased to CMAL, which is chaired by a Danish industrialist. To add insult to injury, the ship does not have a dedicated bar.

John MacLeod agrees there is residual affection for CalMac, but has only contempt for the way the company has failed to listen. “Nowadays, CalMac is little more than a brand behind which is a bewildering array of different companies,” he says. “There is a lack of public transparency and the Scottish government is trying to keep it at arm’s length. For many years it’s been impossible to find out how much a given route costs to operate.”

He says that despite extra summer sailings, Loch Seaforth is struggling to cope with demand. “CalMac is the last nationalised dinosaur in captivity,” adds MacLeod, who believes decisions are taken in Edinburgh by “people who know diddly about ships”. He is not convinced being run by Serco would make much difference. Even some of those who are more positive about CalMac feel its monopoly has made it complacent.

Elsewhere, anxiety over Serco has been temporarily eased by Sturgeon’s agreement to delay the tendering process, a move being read as signalling a possible change of heart. “When the SNP government restart the tendering process, they should make it clear this service must remain in public hands,” said Labour MSP James Kelly.

On the mainland, Lamont is recalling the days before roll on/roll off ferries when the cars were hoisted on and off in nets and her dad was taking tourists out to Iona and Staffa on the George V. “It was like a cruise but with quaint old teuchters like my father,” she says. The MSP for Glasgow Pollok is optimistic the current hiatus means the transport minister is at least trying to find a satisfactory resolution. “My feeling is that [CalMac] provides a lifeline service. It protects the wee islands and the smaller communities,” she says. “If you don’t have good transport links, if you don’t offer opportunities for tourism and for goods to be transported, you reinforce the economic challenges for fragile communities. And you make it more difficult for people to stay.”