THE working life of Scotland’s ageing ferry fleet has been raised by 15 years  and helped to cut spending, the Herald on Sunday can reveal.

A former CalMac executive who described it as a “simple ruse” that he believes will have put off expenditure on replacements for the fleet but has also raised concerns about safety issues for the travelling public.

The Herald on Sunday can reveal that the Scottish Government-controlled owners and purchasers of Scotland's ferries have quietly raised the 'depreciation' period of Scotland's ferries from 20 years to 35 years in the space of just 13 years.

Official documents seen by the Herald on Sunday show that the 'extension' of the fleet's working life has helped to cut operating expenditure and increase profits.

The move has shocked John Whittle, the first chief executive and general manager of Caledonian MacBrayne, when it was free of government control who says that the moves to extend the 'working' life of the fleet is a "simple ruse" which has has cut the need for planned replacement of vessels, and slashed annual spending on replacements by millions.

He is concerned that the extended life of Scotland's ferry network is the result of criticism over planning of services and the rising costs of the services.

Mr Whittle, who was at the helm of CalMac for ten years till 1983 and is now retired, said the increased 'expected useful life' "reduces the need for planning replacement vessels and cuts the annual expenditure on depreciation and capital in replacement ships.

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He added: "A 'clever ruse' but one that increases the maintenance cost and reduces reliability, problems imposed on CalMac."

He added: "Obviously there is a safety problem. As the ships get older, there is reliability issue and mechanical failure and you have to be concerned about safety."

State-run Caledonian Maritime Assets Ltd (CMAL), which owns the ferry network, and commissions new vessels, says any concerns about safety is "scaremongering" and insists well-maintained ferries can operate safely for 40 years.

Some 16 of state-owned ferry operator CalMac's 31 working ferries deployed across Scotland is now over 25 years old.

HeraldScotland:

The oldest in the CalMac fleet is is the Isle of Cumbrae which is 45-year-old and is still a regular summer ferry on Argyll and Bute's Tarbert to Portavadie route.

Second oldest is 37-year-old Isle of Arran which usually serves as the second Arran ferry in the summer and despite only being able to take four lorries, had to be called on in April to carry out the overnight freight run on the Stornoway-Ullapool route after MV Loch Seaforth suffered an engine failure.

The others that are over 25 years old are Hebridean Isles (36) Loch Linnhe (35), Loch Riddon (35) Loch Striven (35), Loch Ranza (34), Isle of Mull (33), Lord of the Isles (32), Loch Dunvegan (30), Loch Fyne (30) Loch Buie (29), Loch Tarbert (29) Caledonian Isles (28), Isle of Lewis (26) and Loch Bhrusda, which was completed in May, 1996.

After 1973, when the Caledonian Steam Packet Co. acquired most of the ferries and routes and began joint Clyde and West Highland operations under the new name of Caledonian MacBrayne, the official expected life of a ferry had been 20 years.

That is until 2002, three years after the 1999 devolution when the then Scottish Government-owned Caledonian MacBrayne which then owned the fleet and procured vessels, extended the 'working life' from 20 years to 25 years.

Financial papers explaining the decision stated: "During the year, the directors carried out a review of the company's policy in respect of depreciation of ships and concluded that, particularly in view of the high standards to which the company's fleet is maintained in ensuring that ships remain in class, it is more appropriate to write off the cost of each ship over a 25-year period. Previously ships were written off over a 20-year period.

"The impact on the profit for the year in respect of the extension of the useful working lives of ships from 20 to 25 years .. is to cut ships operating expenditure and to increase the profit before tax for 2003 by £746,000."

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CMAL which took control of the ownership of the ferry network and the purchase of new vessels in 2006, has since moved the depreciation life from up to a maximum of 25 years to 35 years.

Mr Whittle, a former CalMac director, who became the Scottish Transport Group’s head of planning, marketing and public affairs before retiring in 1989, says extending the life of the ferries drastically cuts the capital costs of ferries and was concerned about whether there was a coherent replacement plan.

And he believed the "convoluted" ferry structure should be radically changed so that CalMac can get back control of spending as happened during his time as captain of the ship.

The nation's procurement process, involves what critics describe as a "closed group" of Scottish Government-controlled bodies - Transport Scotland as funders, the procuring and ferry owning company, CMAL and CalMac.

HeraldScotland:

"CalMac are struggling to keep the service going with an aged fleet," he said.

"I have a lot of sympathy for the present management and staff at CalMac. It is a hell of a situation for them. "They are struggling to maintain services with restrictions imposed on them by others.

"Frankly we have this convoluted structure where CalMac isn't deciding when it is going to replace the vessels. Unless they get control of that you are going to have this going on forever more.

"Because you have organisations with no direct operating responsibility.

"And who gets the stick when it goes wrong? CalMac management. And whose fault is it? It is not there's.

"They have been lumbered with ever more expensive craft."

The concerns come off the back of the country's ferry building fiasco at the now state-owned Ferguson Marine, owner of the last civilian Clyde shipyard.

The two lifeline ferries being built at Ferguson Marine which were due to be in service in early 2018 are now up to nearly five years behind schedule and their cost is now over double the original £97m contract.

Analysis using official data shows that from 1993, before devolution, to 2007, 12 ferries with a combined tonnage of 33,350 were launched - a replacement rate of one in 1.16 years.

READ MORE: Anger as Scotland's ferry fleet deemed too 'big for islands and a taxpayer burden'

In the following 14 years, while the SNP was in power and after the working life of the existing fleet was extended, only five ferries with combined tonnage of 16,188 were built - a replacement rate of one every 2.8 years.

If the current replacement rate is maintained, the new Scottish Government would not be able to replace the 16 ferries that are past their working life right now for another 45 years.

Mr Whittle said: "The problems CalMac have, the breakdowns, are down to the age of the ships. If you have a car, you decide to keep for ten years, you end up with maintenance and reliability problems. The same is true with ships.

"You can soldier on with a private car, it maybe doesn't work so well, but with a ship and a ferry service, you are dealing with people's lives. You cannot run an unsafe ship.

"No responsible management would do that. They have to take it out of service and repair it. They cannot risk a breakdown in the middle of a passage.

"And there is also the impact of weather. A brand new ship in peak working condition, you feel a bit more cheerful in bad weather. If you have 30-year old ship which has mechanical problems, you are not going to put it under pressure, which is what bad weather does. You are causing the ship to push through rough seas and high wind.

"It puts extra stress on the vessel. All these things add up."

HeraldScotland:

It comes in a week when islanders and travellers faced days of disruption as ferry operator CalMac had to charter a passenger ferry twice as technical problems hit another of its ageing fleet.

While trying to deal with a backlog of vehicles and freight in the service to Eigg, Muck, Rum and Canna after repair work was carried out to the thruster of 21-year-old car ferry MV Lochnevis, it broke down again on Thursday. This time it was a problem with the centre shaft generator circuit breaker.

Problems with Lochnevis have resulted in disruption for the past three weeks. On May 16, calls to Rum and Canna had to be cancelled.

Lochnevis which can carry 190 passengers and 14 cars, had to stop all services on the morning of the Spring Bank Holiday because of the technical issue. It later operated a passenger-only service and brought in a passenger charter MV Larven to operate on Tuesday so that it can be repaired.

Meanwhile MV Loch Seaforth returned to services for the 10.30pm freight sailing from Stornoway on Monday after being offline for repairs for nearly seven weeks causing further disruption across a number of services. She successfully completed her sea trials over last weekend.

The return of CalMac's largest vessel came after complaints of a cancellation of a freight sailing on Lewis at the weekend - leaving behind at least seven articulated lorries - three with loads of salmon.

A Transport Scotland spokesman said:“Any suggestion that the reason for the age of the fleet been extended for depreciation purposes to reduce the need for investment is entirely untrue.

“Transport Scotland is currently working with CMAL, CalMac and others to develop investment programmes for major vessels and small vessels. This work will look to deliver improvements, building on the substantial investment which has been made across these services in recent years. The investment programme for the next five years was set out in the Scottish Government’s Infrastructure Investment Plan and is supported by a commitment of at least £580 million.”

A CMAL spokesman said: “First and foremost, our vessels are safe; any suggestion to the contrary is scaremongering.

“CMAL is a single purpose entity and all of the money that we generate through revenue, grants or loans are fully committed to improving services – there is no profit motive whatsoever.

“Mr Whittle clearly misunderstands the robust arrangements that are in place.

“The suggestion that the lifespan of vessels has been altered in line with level of available investment is nonsense. There’s no denying vessels need to be replaced, however, vessels can operate effectively for between 30 and 40 years – and do so in many parts of the world. The vessels that we retire from the fleet are sold on the global market and many go on to continue supporting commercial ferry services. If a vessel is properly serviced and maintained, there is no reason it cannot operate efficiently and safely for 40 years.

“It’s also important to bear in mind, regardless of who owns and operates the assets, the approval and provision of funding for replacement vessels remains the responsibility of the Scottish Government. On that note, more than £580 million has been committed over five years and we have an ambitious plan of investment underway now that will deliver 19 new vessels and multi-million-pound harbour upgrades in the next 10 years.”