Leaving aside the recent Covid-related disruptions and the impact of inclement weather, there is no doubt that CalMac’s ferry services are failing to meet the year-round needs of the island communities.

More and more justified criticism from the islanders is being levelled at those responsible.

At the same time there appears to be no solution for the current problems, beyond a further promised £500 million capital spend.

The true cost of resolving these problems has been reported to be in the region of £1.5 billion. As such, the island communities will continue to struggle with capacity and resilience issues for decades to come, unless there is a much-needed change in delivery and policy.

The farce associated with the new vessels at Fergusons has been well and widely reported, however and remarkably, no-one has accepted any responsibility for the £200m overspend, the five-year delay or the associated impact it has had on the communities that have desperately needed these new vessels and the additional capacity.

I believe that the current problems are mostly attributable to the introduction of the Road Equivalent Tariff fare reduction scheme. However laudable, the lower fares created a significant increase in demand when there was no matched increase in ferry capacity.

This mismatch and mistiming has resulted in many services being severely overbooked during the summer and likewise constrained during the winter, either as a result of CalMac’s drydocking programme and the season’s weather conditions.

With no spare vessels to hand, any unforeseen technical problem on one vessel will likely impact the whole network.

These capacity issues are not helped by CalMac’s current steam-powered booking system, where it is commonplace to see empty car deck space on a service which is fully booked.

Islanders are becoming increasingly impatient of the year-round capacity and resilience issues and are becoming embittered by the lack of available solutions.

Much has been made of the contents of the delayed service review currently being undertaken by Ernst and Young, but islanders are learning not to hold their breathe with expectations. The prospect of a ferry czar will merely create another branch and cost to the existing structure with little ability to make any real difference.

The prospect of remerging CMAL, CalMac and David MacBrayne into one company, with one not three managing directors may unjam some of the gears and resolve some of the infighting that has plagued this structure for many years. Instead of appointing a chairperson to represent the ministerial shareholding, the Transport Minister could assume this role personally to bring some much-needed accountability to the role.

Nevertheless this restructuring is likely to be undermined by a political desire to re-enter the European Union, whose membership may require there to be a degree of separation between vessel owner and operator.

The Transport Minister and Transport Scotland would be better to canvas and listen to the islanders for their views as opposed to engaging a further set of mainland consultants. Debundling the network would appear to be politically unpalatable, but this decision is perhaps better made by the island communities themselves, and there are some island communities that are keen to investigate and develop this opportunity.

Previously, one of the stated protectorates of the CalMac monopoly and the status quo was the ability of the larger vessels to relieve each other. However the designs of the new vessels now mean that they are more route specific and not fully transferable between routes.

Western Ferries has long held ambitions to operate on other routes. Unfortunately these have had to be put on hold. For example, our plans for an Arran service were undermined when CalMac deployed a second vessel to the route. Similarly the commerciality of a freight service connecting Islay and Troon was impacted by the recent and surprise announcement that CMAL would be ordering two new vessels as opposed to one.

Route by route tendering would give the island communities the same level of guarantees in respect to service levels and fares as their current arrangement with CalMac. Importantly, it has to be remembered that whilst all CalMac routes operate at a loss, they are at the same time individually all magically “profitable” because of the subsidy payments.

However, without explanation or justification any debundling has been personally ruled out by the First Minister. So then, what is left to give islanders any glimmer of hope for the future?


Perhaps the Gourock to Dunoon situation provides a workable solution for other routes. The ongoing subsidisation of CalMac’s competing Gourock to Dunoon route is in part justified by Transport Scotland on the basis that it provides an alternative service when Western Ferries’ services are running at near capacity. Not that this happens very often.

Western Ferries will operate up to 12 sailings an hour during extreme peaks, with the ability to carry about 500 cars. Yet, and only on limited occasions customers may have to wait 30 minutes, or thereabouts, to board.

If Transport Scotland can justify a subsidised service on the basis of a non-subsidised competitor’s perceived capacity problem, then it should be reasonable, eminently feasible and palatable for Transport Scotland to subsidise other operators to provide additional services when CalMac’s capacity is clearly constrained.

Take again, for example, Islay. There is nothing to stop Transport Scotland contracting directly with Western Ferries to provide a freight service in additional to the CalMac service.

Simultaneously and immediately providing the additional freight capacity desperately needed by the whisky industry as well as ample capacity for islanders and tourists. This arrangement would also provide a greater level of service resilience for Islay as well as the entire CalMac network.

This approach could be replicated and extended on to other capacity constrained routes. The benefits of such arrangements is that they are all achievable without any debundling of the CalMac monopoly.

Gordon Ross is managing director of Western Ferries (Clyde) Limited.