FERRY users have joined forces to condemn the design of the nation's lifeline ferries saying they are too big for the islands they serve and are overburdening the taxpayer.

The Mull & Iona Ferry Committee in an analysis of passengers levels in 2018/19 has raised concerns that ferries on all major routes in Scotland are already currently too large for the number of passengers and are are overstaffed.

The concerns come as ministers have come under increasing pressure over the "closed group" decision making over the procurement of vessels which has led to the country's ferry building fiasco.

And the committee says the mistakes have been further made in the design of the long delayed lifeline vessels being built at Ferguson Marine which are also too big.

If further raised concerns that State-owned ferry operator CalMac in its detailed specification discounted a smaller catamaran which it was felt would be cheaper to build and more efficent to run.

In a critical analysis which has had support from Arran ferry users, they say producing new ferries that would accommodate 950 was a "wild over-provision" and resulted in "high, inflexible and expensive crewing" that cannot be easily reduced.

The Ferguson Marine shipyard in Port Glasgow which was awarded a £97 million contract to build two ferries, designated 801 and 802, collapsed into administration last August and was taken into state ownership by the Scottish Government. The cost of the ferries has since doubled.

The two lifeline ferries which were due to be in service in early 2018 are now up to nearly five years behind schedule.

The first of the ferries the MV Glen Sannox is now destined for the Arran to Ardrossan route between April 2022 and June, 2022.

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Pre-lockdown the already delayed timetable had the Glen Sannox in action by October to December, 2021. A second vessel, known only as Hull 802, which was supposed to be delivered to state-owned CalMac in the first half of 2018 for use on the Uig-Lochmaddy-Tarbert triangle - will not now be in service until between December, 2022 and February, 2023.

The committee says the new island ferries "fail to meet the requirements of the routes they serve" and that the process for procurement should be "completely renewed".

It produced evidence to show that a demand to have two new 950-passenger ferries for the Ardrossan to Arran route and the Uig to Tarbert and Lochmaddy sailings did not make sense as they rarely ever carried 950 passengers.

The Herald:

Mull & Iona Ferry Committee details that "over-provision of passenger capacity is clear on all major routes"

Data revealing passenger capacity over 2018/19 shows the current Arran ferry MV Caledonian Isle rarely ever carried 950 passengers with numbers normally below 400.

And in a year of MV Hebrides sailings which is now used for the Uig to Tarbert and Lochmaddy, only three carried more than 300 people. The highest was just 335.

"There is not a single route in the entire network where fixed capacity of 1000 on a single vessel appears to be justified," the committee says.

The ferry committee said: "The 950 passenger ‘requirement’ described in the [CalMac specification] appears to have no rigorous evidential or operational basis. It un-necessarily burdens the operator and taxpayer with a high-cost fleet, and results in extreme inflexibility of service for users.

READ MORE: Revealed: Ministers' secret path to the controversial state takeover of Ferguson Marine

"There is no evidence that the process leading to the order for hulls 801 and 802 took proper account of user input; there was little appraisal of strategy either on a network-wide or route-by route basis; the decision-making process is opaque; the specification criteria, for example, passenger capacity, appears to be based on the crudest measures, whilst other key criteria are omitted from the specification altogether, for example, maximising vehicle capacity and minimising fuel consumption.

"Providing more passenger capacity than is needed adds cost. Large passenger spaces add to the cost of building vessels – not just the direct cost of building more toilets, bigger lounges, bigger bars and bigger cafeterias, but also the cost of additional lifeboats and safety equipment. Not only that, but more passengers require more crew … and with the prevailing preference for live-aboard crewing, that extra crew accommodation has to be added to the top of the vessel and makes it heavier, higher, and more complex."

The Herald:

In March, in evidence to the Scottish Parliament, CalMac managing director Robbie Drummond said: "The reason why the figure of 950 was selected as the required passenger capacity was to meet the needs of the Ardrossan route. As with all CalMac ferries, we can operate those vessels with different passenger certifications, which means that we can operate them with different crew numbers."

But new data shows that in using MV Isle of Mull as an example, whilst the passenger certification almost halves from 951 to 530 in winter, the crewing requirement drops by just five from 28 to 23, or by only 17%.

And for the Lord of the Isles ferry when passenger levels drop from 506 in the summer to 250 in the winter, crewing requirement drops by just 11%.

"Crewing levels clearly cannot be significantly flexed up and down in proportion to the carryings of the route – if the ship is built with a large passenger capacity, it will have a large crew requirement permanently ‘baked in’," the committee said.

Gavin Fulton of the Arran Ferry Action Group, whose 1,200 supporters represent more than half of households on the island, supported the committee concerns, which have been passed to MSPs.

He said: "It is the closest thing we are going to get to a smoking gun, not with regards to what went wrong with the build but as to why they ordered two giant-sized ferries which fit neither our existing harbour or the port of refuge and are grossly oversized for the Uig run . A mistake which they keep on making.

"You have huge ships with large crews often running empty.

" These boats are totally inappropriate. Too big, too thirsty, too many crew, too much windage, too inflexible. They were told by the Arran community that we wanted two medium sized boats which shuttled back and forward. This would allow for a more frequent service, redundancy in quiet periods, smaller terminal buildings and no need for major harbour alterations. A request that was ignored."

Last month the Herald on Sunday revealed that the Highlands and Islands Transport Partnership (HITRANS), which was created by Transport Scotland and is part-funded by the Scottish Government, demanded "better due diligence" in procuring ferries and better engagement with the communities who rely on them.

They criticised the nation's procurement process, involving a "closed group" of Scottish Government-controlled bodies - Transport Scotland as funders, the procuring and ferry owning company, Caledonian Maritime Assets Ltd (CMAL), and ferry operators Calmac.

The Herald on Sunday has previously revealed the government has faced questions about failing to notify the Competition watchdogs have already warned about the "potential risks" of state control over the way ferries are operated, run and paid for in Scotland.

The Herald:

It says there are dangers of Ferguson Marine being awarded work without a competitive tender process, saying "it is unlikely to make it a commercially sustainable business" and "it may also have a negative impact on the wider industry".

The trade regulator said the future procurement process should be "neutral" and ensure it "doesn't favour a state provider".

A Transport Scotland spokesperson said: “CalMac noted in its evidence to the committee that they can operate the vessels at different passenger certifications and crewing levels. In addition, there is a need to ensure that ferry design meets the different needs of the communities they serve, including at peak periods. We continue to look for improvements in efficiency and operating costs as we consider future vessel procurement.

“Transport Scotland is currently working with CMAL, CalMac and many others to develop potential investment programmes for major vessels and small vessels with the aim of increased standardisation, taking account of the many varied routes and harbour specifications around the Clyde and Hebrides network.”

“We welcome engagement with the ferry committees representing island communities across the network, including on development of new vessel specification for replacement vessels such as on Islay.”  

Robbie Drummond, managing director of CalMac, said: “The actual procurement and build of ferries in Scotland is a matter for Caledonian Maritime Assets Limited and Transport Scotland, who make the final decisions on the type of vessels built.

“We work positively with CMAL and Transport Scotland in all such discussions and always try to bring a perspective of customer requirements and operational factors to the table.”