One of the main justifications cited for protecting CalMac’s monopoly is that private sector operators would only be interested in tendering for the profitable routes leaving the public sector with the subsidised rump. However, and for the record, none of CalMac’s routes are profitable, every single route is heavily subsidised.

As an example, CalMac have received hundreds of millions in subsidy to compete against Western Ferries on the Gourock to Dunoon route. The current estimate is around £5 million of subsidy a year, so with annual carryings around 200,000, this equates to £50 of subsidy for every return trip. At those levels of support, it would be cheaper for CalMac to invest in a taxi fleet to take the foot passengers from the Gourock train station to their front door.

Western Ferries’ four current vessels are fully utilised on the Gourock to Dunoon route, providing 32,000 sailings a year, 365 days of the year. The combination of these four vessels and four linkspans delivers a level of resilience and robustness well beyond anything provided by the public sector provision, and importantly at no cost to the taxpayer.

READ MORE: Ferry chief says ministers must consider privatising lifeline CalMac services

If the Scottish Ministers’ intention going forward is to insist that any future operators utilise CMAL’s existing and future vessels as well as replicating CalMac’s working practices it is doubtful that debundling would bring any service benefits to the island communities or reduce the heavy burden on the taxpayers. For debundling to deliver any benefits, operators would need a free hand to innovate and modernise. Given that there is [a short time] to the next contract award, it is very unlikely that there is sufficient time to consider any innovation or modernisation and as such the island communities and the taxpayer can only look forward to more of the same.

With regards to gauging the market interest in the next CalMac tender, it is very unlikely that any commercial company will consider bidding for the bundle, especially when bearing in mind the significant financial guarantees that will be asked for as part of the procurement process. In fact, as per the previous tenders, the only bidder that will be able to offer these guarantees will be CalMac, as its guarantor has been and will be the Scottish taxpayer.

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The more pressing question is whether CalMac, in its current guise, should be allowed to tender for the next contract. Scottish Ministers have recently nationalised the Sleeper service on the basis of cost and Scotrail service on the basis of service delivery. By these same benchmarks, and taking into consideration the totality of recent events, if not already owned by the Scottish Ministers it is almost certain that CalMac would have lost its ferry contract, many years ago.

Leaving aside the current disruption to service levels associated with technical problems, the launch of the new multi-million ticketing and booking system has been a complete disaster. It is so bad that the staff’s inability to issue tickets has meant that the lucky customers, who can actually get on a ferry, may also benefit from a free crossing. However, this loss of revenue has then to be made up by additional subsidy payments to CalMac. Nevertheless, it would appear that the Scottish Ministers seem quite content to let matters merrily continue despite the impact these disruptions have had on island communities and businesses.

There is also no doubt that the level of frustration across the West Coast of Scotland is reaching boiling point, and rightly so. It is difficult to identify any island community that is satisfied with its current provision. Yet there may still be some hope, as evidenced CalMac’s recent charter of the MV Alfred as well as other recent and more notable one-off charters. In these and other situations, CalMac and the Scottish Ministers have had to accept that the public sector provision is not meeting the communities’, businesses’, visitors’ or even their own individual needs.

Looking forward and in respect to delivering a meaningful impact to service levels in the future, further charter arrangements could operate as effectively sub-contracts to the main tender contract. That being said, the charters would have to be of a sufficient length of time to give other operators the opportunity to design and then build more efficient and commercially orientated vessels. Which at the same time would then remove some of the future capital burdens on the taxpayer.

In respect to Islay, a freight service specifically designed around the needs of distilleries could co-exist alongside the two new ferries currently under construction in Turkey for CMAL. The combination of these three vessels would facilitate the continuing growth of the whisky sector and at the same time satisfy the increasing demands from local residents, local businesses and visitors. Importantly, the addition of the freight service would provide additional capacity during CalMac’s winter maintenance periods when the service is reduced to a one vessel service.

The technical issues with CMAL’s vessels and CalMac’s booking system will be resolved in time by the liberal application of more subsidy to paste over the cracks, and the new vessels from Port Glasgow and Turkey will arrive, at some point. However, when West Coast islanders march in angry protest at being cut-off and other communities are desperate to run their own ferry service, the relationship between CalMac and the island communities is perhaps now broken down beyond repair. They are not alone in respect to losing all faith and trust in CalMac’s management.

Privately owned companies operate subsidised lifeline ferry services all over the world, at the same time private companies also operate domestic subsidised bus, rail and aviation services. Nevertheless, come what may, Holyrood continues to protect CalMac. Going forward, this extraordinary level of protection should only be extended to CalMac, if they can actually provide services that meet the needs of the communities and at the same time provide value for taxpayers’ money.

Gordon Ross

Managing Director

Western Ferries