Rising to the challenge

The Hebrides is the collective name for a chain of islands off the west coast of Scotland that vary wildly in size and population, from large Lewis and Harris to tiny Canna. Despite the islands’ remote location, they have long had living communities and today enjoy a vibrant tourism industry. With the exception of Skye, which possesses a road bridge connecting it to the Scottish mainland, the most reliable method of reaching the islands is on ferries run by Government-owned operator Caledonian MacBrayne (CalMac).

CalMac has a history reaching back 160 years, when paddle steamers emerged as the primary method of transit for passengers and freight along Scotland’s west coast, with David MacBrayne Limited and Caledonian Steam Packet Company being two of the region’s most important shipping companies. Nationalisation in the mid 20th century eventually saw the Caledonian Steam Packet Company enter the hands of the Scottish Transport Group and, following the acquisition of David MacBrayne Limited in 1973, Caledonian MacBrayne was formed and became responsible for almost all the essential routes to and between the islands. Today it runs between the mainland and 26 island destinations as part of a six-year public services contract that commenced on 1st October 2007.

Managing director Phil Preston explains more about CalMac’s organisation today: “We have 31 ships that range in size from small six-car ferries up to major Euro Class B seafaring ro-ros with 100-car and 1000-passenger capacity. Because many of the ports we operate are exposed and in fairly shallow waters, the CalMac fleet is generally accepted as being unique. Our vessels are draft-restricted and, because we deliver cargo to the islands, some have special licences to carry dangerous goods, such as fuel, alongside passengers.

“In June we took delivery of our 31st and latest vessel, MV Finlaggan. She was built by Remontowa Shipyard in Gdansk, Poland, and is 89.8 metres in length, weighs 5000 gross tonnes and carries up to 88 cars or 135 lane metres of commercial vehicles. Despite initial problems with hydraulics when she was first delivered, she has now been operating very well on the Kennacraig- Islay route since 9th July.”

This new vessel symbolises the ongoing commitment both CalMac and the Scottish Government have to providing essential services. Some of the larger islands contain airports but many of the smaller islands including Canna – with a population of fewer than 20 residents – have no other link to Scotland for either travel or freight. There are approximately 50,000 people across all CalMac’s destinations and a large proportion of these are commuters that require reliable, frequent route options back to the mainland.

There are many challenges faced by CalMac in maintaining such a service, the two most pressing issues being the rough weather and vessel upkeep as a result of this environment. “There aren’t many domestic ferry services in the UK that operate out to sea,” highlights the managing director. “Our vessels are sailing into the North Atlantic, to some of the remotest communities in some of the most hostile sea conditions in Europe – particularly during winter.”

An article by Scottish newspaper The Herald in March revealed that, in December 2010, 800 sailings were made by CalMac with no passengers and 3866 had five or fewer passengers, but Phil points out that it’s not a straightforward matter: “In commercial terms this may seem ridiculous but our services are a lifeline – we can’t just stop them because nobody wants to go out to the islands. A lot of the trips were vessels going out to islands to pick passengers up or delivering mail and other goods. We carry a total more than five million passengers per year on 131,000 sailings and are very reliant on the tourism industry, especially during summer peak seasons, but the only days we don’t sail are Christmas Day and New Year’s Day. We have to make these journeys because clearly routes provide a vital function in both directions and there is every chance that there will be customers waiting to make the return crossing.”

Following such a demanding schedule takes its toll on the vessels too. Routes vary in length between five minutes (between Colintraive and Rubodach) and nearly 5.5 hours (between Oban and Lochboisdale) but all ships invariably suffer technical problems in their daily activities that are often exacerbated by challenging weather conditions. The MV Clansman for example, one of the fleet’s most important ships, had a major crankshaft failure last summer and was out of service for six weeks. Such major breakdowns are rare, however, and CalMac has won awards for its service including Public Transport Operator of the Year at the Scottish Transport Awards in both 2010 and 2011, as well as the Guardian and Observer’s Best Ferry Operator title in October last year.

Like the weather, market conditions can be turbulent and an unsure post-recession climate has noticeable effects on the businesses that rely on the public. CalMac is not a huge moneymaking enterprise: it relies on government subsidies whilst attempting to balance reasonable fares with cost coverage. “Two years ago the Government introduced a new fares system on some routes called Road Equivalent Tariff,” Phil explains. “Fares are initially based on a comparative per mile cost of running a vehicle on the road and that had the effect of slashing fares. Those routes remain busy, but with the international economic climate and particularly the recent weakening of the Euro, business has fallen. It’s hard to convince the public to spend extra money for a ferry on top of the £80 or £90 for a tank of petrol.”

However, Phil’s spirits aren’t dampened. “We could sit back and let local marketing groups handle it but CalMac feels a responsibility for marketing our destinations as well as our services. Our resources are spread pretty thinly trying to market 24 islands so we’re therefore working with the marketing groups as well as Visit Scotland to create marketing initiatives and to make the islands an attractive proposition.”

He concludes on a tentative but confident note: “Looking toward the future, the next contract comes to tender in 2012 and of course we will set out to win it again. Parliament has recently commissioned a review of all ferry services throughout Scotland that will shape the future of destinations for the next decade. It looks at which routes are important, how best to serve them, and the reliability and cost of operating fast craft. The outcome will shape the future of our operations but we and the wider group always keep an eye out for potential development and expansion options nonetheless.”

Recently added new £24m ferry to fleet
Recognised by major public transport awards
Provides essential services to local community and economy