LIFELINE ferry services crucial to the economy of the Highlands and Islands are being continually undermined by the poor reliability of an ageing fleet, insufficient capacity and a chronic lack of vessel flexibility.

As controversy rages over delays and spiralling costs on the delivery of two vessels being built by Ferguson Marine Engineering in Port Glasgow, calls are mounting on island communities on the west coast such as Arran, Islay and Lewis for an independent review of how ferries are procured. It comes amid growing concern that vast amounts of public money are being wasted because of investment in vessels which are not appropriate for the routes they serve.

Ferry experts and islanders have told The Herald that a lack of joined-up thinking means huge sums are having to be invested to upgrade quayside infrastructure to accommodate ferries which they say are too big and complex for the ports they sail into.

They argue that Caledonian Maritime Assets (CMAL), the publicly owned infrastructure body which owns many of Scotland’s harbours and ferries, should switch its attention to cheaper-to-buy vessels that are able to make more frequent sailings, require simpler terminals and are less costly to run from a crewing perspective.

And they highlight what they say are flaws inherent in the current approach to buying vessels, stating that CMAL is unable to tap into much-needed economies of scale because it continues to order ferries on a one-off basis, rather than making repeat purchases of similar vessels.

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CMAL currently owns 34 ferries, 31 of which are run by Caledonian MacBrayne on routes across the west of Scotland. Three are run by Serco NorthLink Ferries to the Northern Isles of Orkney and Shetland.

Among the most recent additions is the MV Loch Seaforth, the largest ferry in the fleet, which serves the Ullapool to Stornoway route.

The vessel cost £42 million to build, however the new ship is understood to have necessitated £31m of harbour improvements on either side of the route at Stornoway and Ullapool.

A similar situation has played out on the route connecting Ardrossan in Ayrshire with Brodick on the Arran. In order to accommodate the eventual arrival of the Glen Sannox, one of the two dual-fuel ferries being built by Ferguson, £31m of investment was made to upgrade the harbour at Brodick. The Ardrossan harbour will have to be similarly upgraded.

With the final cost of the Glen Sannox, as well as sister vessel known currently as Hull 802, still to be ratified, and speculation the price could rise to as much as £75m per vessel, there are fears the overall cost of upgrading the Ardrossan to Brodick crossing could be well in excess of £100m. CMAL and Ferguson initially agreed a £97m deal to build the two ferries in 2015, but since then relations between the two parties have deteriorated over cost overruns.

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Alf Baird, a professor of maritime business, believes there is a fundamental weakness at the heart of procurement policy. He said: “It is not uncommon for any state to buy poorly efficient ships. That is a common feature of state ownership globally.

“They just end up buying ships that some civil servant specifies somewhere, thinking they know what they are doing but they don’t really, because shipping is pretty much an art as well as a science. Unfortunately we have civil servants coming from education or social work or health coming into transport, and they don’t quite know what they are doing.”

Professor Baird added: “The basic thought seems to be, let’s get bigger and bigger ships. The problem with that is that these ships are becoming so big they are difficult to fit into harbours, especially in bad weather.”

Roy Pedersen, who also sits on the Ferry Industry Advisory Group, agrees that many routes would be much better served by smaller boats sailing more often. In a paper recently submitted to the advisory group, Mr Pedersen said: “If the current policy by Transport Scotland/CMAL for introducing big ships with high passenger/crewing to car ratios and complex terminals continues, the cost to the Scottish exchequer will be extremely high and disproportionate to any benefits gained.

“Best practice worldwide and examples summarised in this paper demonstrate how better, more frequent and more cost-effective ferry services can be provided to the greater overall benefit. To achieve the required shift in policy, a fundamental rethink of ferry policy and practice is required.”

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The challenges facing the ferry network were brought into focus earlier this month, when widespread disruption was caused when the MV Clansman broke down as it sailed from Oban to Tiree. Ferries serving other routes were drafted in to plug the gap, leading to disruption elsewhere in the network.

Much of the strain on the network is attributed to the roll-out of the Road Equivalent Tariff policy, which has dramatically cut the cost of taking cars on the ferries. Critics say the failure to anticipate the impact of RET and upgrade ferry capacity accordingly is one of the main reasons the network is under so much strain.

David Richardson, development manager for the Highlands and Islands at the Federation of Small Businesses (FSB), said that while RET has boosted business and made islands more accessible, the increase in road traffic “is not without consequences”. He said the “frequency of sailings to the mainland and the ability of vessels to cope with increasing demand remains a concern at busy times of the year”, adding: “The fact is that a lack of investment in replacement vessels over the decades has taken its toll, the fleet becoming increasingly old and unreliable. What is needed now is long-term investment in our island infrastructure and connectivity.”

Professor Baird said the situation on island communities is becoming critical amid the growing threat of depopulation, adding that the need for an independent review was urgent.

He said: “All of these island economies are suffering because of this lack of reform and modernisation. They are still ordering the same high-cost, obsolete type of tonnage. They are expending fortunes on harbours. They have spent an enormous amount on RET as well but that is not the key thing – the key is providing a better service.”

A spokeswoman for CMAL said: “Our professional opinion is that the most effective strategy going forward is to procure vessels that are broadly similar in size to the vessels they will replace and will therefore fit existing harbour infrastructure. 

“In general terms, it is better value to build two smaller ferries than build new harbours. That said, our network of harbours also requires significant and ongoing investment and upgrade and we would not describe those investments as a waste in any respect. 

“Our vessels team are professionally qualified and highly experienced maritime/marine engineers and naval architects. Any suggestion that they are not equipped, or lack knowledge to do the job is wrong.”