Figures disclosed to The Herald show the state-owned company operated 3866 sailings with five or fewer passengers – 40% of its total journeys – in December. Of those, 791 had no paying customers on board.
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The low occupancy vessels are thought to make up a dis- proportionate amount of the £57 million grant CalMac receives every year from the Scottish Government as they incur higher fuel costs due to the engines operating at low temperatures but have the same costs for crewing and berthing.
The number of sailings without passengers was exacerbated by severe weather in December that led to many other public transport services being cancelled but did not impact significantly on the 24 routes CalMac operates on the west coast of Scotland.
However, the figures, released to The Herald following a Freedom of Information (FOI) request, also show a low level of patronage in December 2009, when the weather was not so extreme, with more than half of CalMac’s services that month carrying 10 or fewer passengers.
CalMac, a subsidiary of David MacBrayne, a company wholly owned by Scottish ministers, complained yesterday that its hands were effectively tied by the terms of a Scottish Government contract signed in 2007 that specified the timetable and frequency of its services.
Ministers have retained a veto power over any subsequent changes made to its timetable.
A spokesman for the firm said it had raised the issue of winter sailings with the Scottish Govern- ment following the extreme cold last December. CalMac has also appealed for greater flexibility in responding to “fluctuations in traffic levels” between the summer and winter seasons, the spokesman said.
However, he added: “We fully recognise that for rural and remote communities, a regular timetabled ferry service is a necessity that allows them to do many of the things people on the mainland take for granted such as going to school, attending hospital appointments, arranging business meetings and visiting family and friends.”
The cost of operating services without any passengers has not been released as it is considered commercially sensitive by CalMac and so is not covered by FOI legislation.
Professor Iain Docherty, a former non-executive director of Transport Scotland, the Government agency responsible for ferry services, said the Government should examine whether the provision of winter services represented value for money.
“Given the financial imperatives we are facing, no part of public services should be immune from a long, hard look to see if it could be delivered better and more efficiently.”
Professor Alf Baird, an expert on Scottish ferry services at the Transport Research Institute of Napier University, said the figures showed the level of waste the Scottish Government was prepared to put up with.
“Obviously the frequency on some routes has to be reduced in the winter time. But the specification set by civil servants based in Edinburgh, in line with councils on the islands, doesn’t allow for that,” he said.
“The Government should allow more flexibility, such as allowing CalMac not to sail if they have no passengers. If there are three crossings a day in the winter and the middle one has no passengers, it should be stripped out of the timetable.”
However, Neil Kay, economics professor and resident of the Cowal peninsular, questioned how much could be gained by cutting back on winter sailings.
“The bulk of the cost of providing these services is paying for the crew and the boats. Unless you withdraw the service or halve the working day, it’s not clear to me it would make major savings,” he said. “Of course it’s going to cost money to maintain services to the level and price deemed tolerable for communities and their economic development. That’s the cost of providing transport infrastructure for islands communities.”
A spokesman for Transport Scotland said it could not comment due to the rules of purdah that prevents it discussing matters of Government policy during election campaigns.