CalMac ferry crisis: What are the problems with CalMac? How old are the ferries and how long will disruption last?

All you need to know about what lies behind the west coast ferry operator’s chronic problems

CalMac passengers face disruption until at least the end of July because of prolonged repairs and overhauls to its ageing ferry fleet.

Travellers are also experienced problems using the west coast operator’s long-delayed new booking system since it was launched last week.

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The continuing disruption to sailings comes despite CalMac finally securing a relief ferry for the first time for years – the Alfred catamaran, which has been chartered for nine months from Orkney-based Pentland Ferries.

Hebridean Isles should have returned from annual maintenance in February. Picture: Mn28/Wikimedia CommonsHebridean Isles should have returned from annual maintenance in February. Picture: Mn28/Wikimedia Commons
Hebridean Isles should have returned from annual maintenance in February. Picture: Mn28/Wikimedia Commons

The vessel started operating on the main Arran route between Ardrossan and Brodick on May 12 where it will remain until June 29 as the secondary vessel to Caledonian Isles.

It is covering for Isle of Arran which has been redeployed to cover a gap on the Islay route.

A combination of faults and extended annual maintenance work has forced the Scottish Government-owned company to juggle its fleet around the network, meaning fewer services and smaller ferries than normal on several routes.

Hebridean Isles, which normally serves Islay, has been out of action for nearly four months after its annual refit was extended, including for engine damage.

Alfred will operate on CalMac's Ardrossan-Brodick route until June 29. Picture: John DevlinAlfred will operate on CalMac's Ardrossan-Brodick route until June 29. Picture: John Devlin
Alfred will operate on CalMac's Ardrossan-Brodick route until June 29. Picture: John Devlin

On June 16, CalMac announced a further delay to its return pending further work which will cause knock-on disruption until at least July 27.

Finlaggan, the route’s other vessel, must undergo its delayed routine maintenance in dry dock from June 3 to 30 – two months after such work over the winter is normally completed.

As a result, CalMac announced on May 31 that Lord of the Isles would be re-deployed to cover the Islay route for that period, forcing the suspension of all sailings on the Mallaig to Lochboisdale route in South Uist which the ferry normally serves.

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It will operate the two-vessel Islay route from Kennacraig in Kintyre along with Isle of Arran, which will reduce capacity.

CalMac's routes stretch between Stornoway and Campbeltown on KintyreCalMac's routes stretch between Stornoway and Campbeltown on Kintyre
CalMac's routes stretch between Stornoway and Campbeltown on Kintyre

The shortage of available ferries has also meant the start of the summer-only Ardrossan-Campbeltown service has now been postponed by three months to July 27.

The scale of the problems is reflected by CalMac’s annual bill for ferry overhauls, upgrades and repairs soaring by 70 per cent over the last five years to £34 million in 2022-23. It is expected to top £43m in 2023-24, which would increase the five-year total to around £150m.

That is far higher than the figure revealed in a freedom of information response published by the Scottish Liberal Democrats of £106m over the last five years because it did not include upgrades.

Meantime, fines imposed on CalMac by Scottish Government agency Transport Scotland for late sailings or cancellations hit a record £3m in the year to last September, with a further £1.45m notched up over the following six months to March.

Why is CalMac suffering chronic disruption?

The operator has an ageing fleet which is increasingly prone to faults and breakdowns, especially as it has never been worked so hard following the launch of new routes and extra sailings. The ferries are also carrying more passengers and vehicles after a fares cut of up to 40 per cent to align sea and road travel costs, under the Scottish Government’s road equivalent tariff scheme.

How old is the fleet?

CalMac said 38 per cent of its 35 ferries are more than 30 years old. Its oldest is 46 years old – Isle of Cumbrae, which operates the Portavadie-Tarbert route across Loch Fyne.

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Only 14 vessels have been introduced in the last two decades compared to 19 in the previous 20 years, and 40 in the same period before that.

Which routes have been affected the most?

Those served by CalMac’s larger ferries, which are among the oldest, such as to Arran and Mull.

Have new large ferries been ordered?

Loch Seaforth, the newest and biggest large CalMac ferry, entered service in 2015 on the Ullapool-Stornoway route. It was due to have been followed in 2018 by the next largest, Glen Sannox on the main Arran route, and its still-unnamed sister vessel hull 802 on the Skye-Harris-North Uist triangle

However, the pair have been massively delayed by problems at the Ferguson Marine shipyard in Port Glasgow and are not now due to be delivered until this autumn and in late summer 2024 respectively – up to six years late.

Four other large ferries are being built in Turkey: two for Islay – the Isle of Islay and Loch Indaal – which are due to be delivered in October 2024 and February 2025. The other two, as yet unnamed, vessels are earmarked for the Skye-Harris-North Uist routes. and due to delivered in June and October 2025. Hull 802 may now join Glen Sannox on the main Arran route instead.

What new smaller ferries are due to be ordered?

Over the next three years, three new ferries are planned for the passenger-only Gourock to Dunoon and Kilcreggan routes, and others for the Mallaig-Armadale/Lochboisdale and Oban-Mull routes.

Up to seven of the smallest vehicle-carrying ferries are due to be replaced by 2030.

How old is CalMac?

50 years in its current form, but the company can trace its history back 172 years to steamer firm David Hutcheson & Co, which was renamed David MacBrayne in the 1870s and merged with the Caledonian Steam Packet Company in 1973 to form Caledonian MacBrayne.

How big is it?

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CalMac is the UK’s largest ferry operator, with some 136,000 sailings a year serving 50 destinations on a network of 29 routes stretching 200 miles from Stornoway to Campbeltown. Crossings range from five minutes to more than five hours, which carry nearly 5m passengers and 1.4m cars a year.

What is Caledonian Maritime Assets Limited (Cmal)?

Port Glasgow-based Cmal is the Scottish Government’s ferry buying and owning arm, which owns the CalMac fleet and 16 ports and harbours. It was established in 2006 to comply with EU competition regulations, to enable a fair contest as the CalMac contract was required to be put out to competitive tender.

When does CalMac’s contract end?

October 2024. CalMac has operated the current contract since winning a competition against private operator Serco in 2016. The Scottish Government has still to decide whether to directly award CalMac another contract or shake-up the CalMac/Cmal structure under its Project Neptune review.



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