Splitting up CalMac routes ‘would dramatically improve services’ – Pentland Ferries

Splitting up CalMac's west coast ferry routes "would dramatically improve the service provision", an Orkney ferries chief has told MSPs.

Helen Inkster, managing director of private operator Pentland Ferries, said: “I absolutely agree with unbundling of routes."

She told the Scottish Parliament’s net zero, energy and transport committee: “Looking at smaller areas, some of those routes could be commercially viable and therefore achievable by a private operator to come in and run those routes, maybe alongside some other ones.

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“There is potential for privatisation on some of these routes, but also to offer services above the subsidised routes already there.”

Helen Inkster, managing director of Pentland Ferries, said some CalMac routes could be commercially viable for private operators. Picture: Scottish Parliament TV

Pentland Ferries competes with publicly-subsidised NorthLink Ferries, which is run by Serco, on routes between Orkney and the mainland.

Gordon Ross, managing director of privately-run Western Ferries, which operates between Gourock and Dunoon, said unbundling should be considered even though ministers were adamant the publicly-funded CalMac network would be kept together.

He told the committee that ministers had been “absolutely clear they are going to continue with the bundle … unbundling has been ruled out”.

However, he said: "I think unbundling would provide opportunities, and there are some communities that would even want to run their own services.

One of the two new ferries being built for Islay, with a further two similar designs to be ordered for the CalMac's wider west coast network. Picture: Transport Scotland

“There are merits. There are advantages and disadvantages. The communities should have some say into how best they want their communities served.”

Mr Ross agreed there could be a case for additional ferry services on top of those operated by CalMac, such as to Islay, for which two new ferries have been ordered by Scottish Government ferry-owning firm Caledonian Maritime Assets Ltd.

He said: “Western Ferries looked at providing a freight service to Islay to meet the growing needs of the whisky industry. That was knocked back into touch [by] the recent announcement that there would be two new boats built in Turkey for Islay.

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"If the whisky industry continues to grow on Islay and the tourist numbers continue to increase, the provision with two new ferries still might not be sufficient. Whether or not we can come in on a commercial basis or under a separate contract with Transport Scotland/Scottish ministers is something I’d like to explore.”

In 1999, ministers won a concession from the European Commission to keep the CalMac network as a single bundle. However, they were forced to put the ferry contract out for competitive tender, with Scottish Government-owned CalMac winning each one so far.

Mr Ross said a benefit of the single CalMac routes’ “bundle” was the flexibility to switch ferries between routes in “foreseen and unforeseen events”.

He said a reason for the bundle was the “lifeline” nature of the ferry service, adding: “Vessels break down – they are a mechanical item – and to keep the service going the boats have to be able to move from one route to another.”

The Scottish Government said transport minister Jenny Gilruth had made it clear when announcing the results of research into the future structure of ferry provision in September the CalMac network would be retained.

A Transport Scotland spokesperson said: “Ministers have been clear on multiple occasions, including the transport minister’s recent update to Parliament on Project Neptune, that we will not consider unbundling or privatisation of any of the Clyde and Hebrides ferry services routes.”

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