Angry clash over CalMac vessel size pits Mull ferry passengers against owning body Caledonian Maritime Assets

Islanders have triggered a major row with the Scottish Government’s ferry-buying body by claiming its method of choosing new vessels is "deceptive, biased and pre-judged".

The Mull and Iona Ferry Committee has accused Caledonian Maritime Assets Limited (Cmal) of leaving passengers with a poorer service by favouring bigger ferries for CalMac’s west coast routes rather than a larger number of smaller ones.

However, Cmal chief executive Kevin Hobbs has hit back by branding the committee as "totally vexatious" and describing its claims as inaccurate, unprofessional and distasteful.

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Committee chair Joe Reade said he had examined Cmal’s ferry procurement and feared the recent selection of large ferries for the Islay routes would be replicated when Mull’s main ferry was replaced.

One of the two CalMac ferries ordered last month for Islay. Picture: Transport Scotland

The Islay vessels, which will increase capacity by nearly 40 per cent by carrying 100 cars and 450 passengers, were ordered last month at a cost of £105 million, with a further £25m required for port upgrades.

Reade said: “As we approach the replacement of our own MV Isle of Mull, there is understandable concern on our islands that Cmal’s preference for large ferry ‘cruise liners’, will be repeated on Mull.”

He said buying several smaller vessels instead would enable more frequent sailings and avert disruption from any harbour upgrading required for larger ferries.

The committee chair said that option would also mean other ferries not having to be redeployed from other routes during vessel maintenance, reducing wider disruption to the network.

Mull and Iona Ferry Committee chair Joe Reade

Reade said: “They [Cmal] opted to replace it [an Islay ferry] with one large ship, but then went on to decide to replace both Islay vessels.

"The alternative, that we believe would have been a better outcome on all counts, would have been to replace each Islay ferry with two small ferries – so four in total.

"Their options appraisal appears to be quite deliberately skewed against the best choice, which was to opt for smaller ferries, but more of them.”

Reade said the decision had followed a single ferry being ordered for the Ullapool-Stornoway route – MV Loch Seaforth – and one for the Skye-North Uist-Harris “Uig triangle”, which is being built by Ferguson Marine in Inverclyde.

Caledonian Maritime Assets Limited chief executive Kevin Hobbs. Picture: Susie Lowe

He said last year’s Loch Seaforth breakdown for nearly two months “demonstrates the fragility of a service that relies on a single vessel”.

The committee has produced a report which it said described how Cmal “ran a ‘deceptive, biased and pre-judged’ options appraisal that has resulted in much more expensive vessels and a poorer service for islanders”.

It accused Cmal of a “succession of deceptive errors and omissions intended to favour one large vessel instead of two smaller ones”.

The report said there was “an assumption that all ferry options regardless of size would need the same crew of 27”, which had led to a “bias in favour of the largest vessel option”.

MV Loch Seaforth was out of action for nearly two months after breaking down last year. Picture: Rachel Kennan Photography

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Reade said: “Cmal and the Hebridean ferry establishment seem to have a macho fascination with making each new ferry larger than the previous one, to the extent that they create misleading presentations to justify them.

"They certainly don’t consider in any meaningful way if there are better ways of doing things that could be both easier on the taxpayer and better for islanders.”

He said a similar-capacity Norwegian ferry being built in the same Turkish shipyard as the Islay ones would be half the price.

However, Cmal said the comparison was “entirely flawed” and reflected a “profound lack of understanding of the technical aspects of ship design”.

It said there were a range of different specifications required for the Islay vessels, such as extra power to operate in the open sea.

Kevin Hobbs of Cmal said: "We are concerned about the continuing narrative from that particular ferry committee about all manner of things.

"I think they are totally vexatious.

"While they represent the isle of Mull, one wonders where they get their information from because, to be frank, it’s not recognisable and it’s not accurate, and it’s certainly in no way professional.

"We have 45 people in Port Glasgow that are qualified up to the hilt in naval architecture, marine civil engineering and all manner of other marine associated and shipping businesses.

"We all come from private shipping and engineering backgrounds and I just find it really, really distasteful the way this is being played out.

"If people would only ask us, everything can be explained 100 per cent."

Hobbs said Cmal designed vessels for what it was asked to provide by CalMac and the Scottish Government’s Transport Scotland agency.

He said: "All roads seem to lead back to ‘Cmal don’t know what they are talking about’, when in actual fact if you look at the reality, we receive a ‘statement of requirements’ which reflects what the contract with CalMac (given by Transport Scotland) requires.

"It’s not Cmal that says we need 27 crew – it’s a combination of the Maritime and Coastguard Agency saying what is the safe manning of a ship, and listening to the island communities.

“There’s people out there that believe that ships should be smaller, there’s others that believe they should be bigger.”

A Cmal spokesperson added: “A little knowledge is a dangerous thing. We deal in facts, not opinion.

"We are not in the business of deception or wasting Scottish taxpayers’ money.

“Vessels are built to a size appropriate for the route to provide resilience and seaworthiness. Passenger comfort is a major factor."

A CalMac spokesperson said: “This is clearly a matter for Cmal/Transport Scotland as the bodies responsible for procurement, and not for us as the operator.”

A Scottish Government spokesperson said: “We are confident Cmal has carried out a robust procurement process for the contract to build two new vessels to serve Islay.

“It’s also worth noting that the Ferries Communities Board highlighted to the [Scottish Parliament’s] rural economy and connectivity committee that the Islay consultation process was a model that should be built upon.”

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