Mull’s Ferry may be put out to tender

This one’s for anyone who has a particular love for the Isle of Mull. According to a recent report in Am Muileach, one of the island’s local weekly papers, the Scottish Government is asking for input into the Scottish Ferries Review. The consultation closes on the 30th of September so if you have a view on how Mull (or other islands) are serviced by ferries, this is your chance to make your views known.

The paper explains that the Review document can be found online and warn that it’s quite a lengthy document but has links to the online questionnaire. You do not have to answer all the questions however, so if you have a view, whether as a local, or as a past, present or future visitor, please take a moment to take part.

Ferry routes between Oban and Craignure may be put out to private tender.The big question is what happens to the vital lifeline of the Oban to Craignure route? In this review the Scottish Government has apparently suggested that they are specifically going to consider this single service being put out to tender. The whole point of tendering is to try to get competitive bids, but the reality is that there aren’t many island ferry routes that a private contractor would jump at — they’re just not profitable. The Mull route is however. So, for me at least, even the notion of breaking up the Caledonian Macbrayne routes seems ill-judged. If you take away one of the profitable routes from CalMac, they have even less cash to service the unprofitable island routes.

At the same time, the cost of getting to Mull, which for a standard car and passengers is about 80 pounds with two adults and two kids at the moment, might simply go up. After all, if it were to be tendered successfully the whole point of tendering for the bidder is to secure a route where they believe there’s money to be made. To secure it they need to keep costs to a minimum in the tendering process. The government can then absolve itself of the responsibility to the community of maintaining the vital lifeline to the mainland by getting a bid that takes that burden off its hands. But then the successful private company is going to be looking to make up its low tender offer by squeezing more profit from travellers.

In other words, I can’t see how the Oban to Craignure run can be hived off from the rest of CalMac’s routes without it being bad for tourists, which would then be bad for Mull’s local community. There’s a bigger picture here which says that for Island life on Mull, and elsewhere, to thrive the Scottish Government has to accept that it needs to treat Ferries as a vital utility that must be maintained in order to make these beautiful parts of Scotland viable over the long term. Short term cost-cutting through tendering off profitable ferry routes will, I think, ultimately depress other economic activity on Mull and make it a less appealing destination for tourists. No-one, surely, wants that?

We pay taxes so Goverment and local government can maintain our roads and motorways. Ferry routes are the highways to the islands and, as such, Government must be charged with maintaining them for the benefit of tourists, trade and locals. So, until it can be proved otherwise, it’s probably a case of… better the devil you know!

Ralph
Twitter: mullescape

9 thoughts on “Mull’s Ferry may be put out to tender”

  1. Calmac ferries are not profitable due to the constraints on the company by the RMT union. Where else can you get such generous conditions of circa £25K pa for an fairly unskilled job (I am ex merchant navy) and work 22 weeks of the year. The cost to the taxpayer of Calmac/Northlink is approaching £200m and they continue to run uneconomical ships….there is a bigger picture but please look at all the facts and balance them up.

  2. Hi Paul

    If this is the case, does that automatically mean that, because staff have good working conditions this vital service should therefore be put to tender to a private profit-centred business?

    I’d agree that there are issues with historic working practices but I’m concerend that any changes made to the way the service operates are made for much broader reasons.

    I’m not against the notion of tendering, but on what basis and what guarantees that the Government will not abandon responsibility to a private sector who are unlikely to seek such a franchise for purely benign reasons.

    This route is so important on so many economic levels that I fear for it being used as an experiment as the consequences of making it worse than it was before could be disasterous for the island’s economic well-being.

    Cheers

    Ralph

  3. Couple of other comments from around the web on this issue:

    Matthew From Tripadvisor said:

    The route (along with most other ferries in the West of Scotland) is currently run by Caledonian MacBrayne, which is owned by the Scottish Government. The ships used by CalMac are also owned by the Scottish Government, through a separate company and leased to CalMac. There is a legal obligation on the Scottish Government to tender these routes from time to time, owing to European competition law and restrictions on state aid.

    Personally, I very much hope that the current arrangements continue, but the process of route tendering is not one which will go away – unless the law is changed at EU level.

    Someone from the Isle of Mull page on Facebook said:

    Many of us here believe that competition could also be a good thing. If you look at Pentland Ferries run by a private company, and compare it to the heavily subsidised Northlink ferry service, it shows what can be done by the private sector. For our island to survive, it requires an efficient, low cost service to operate. Calmac could do a lot better, if competition was in place.

    Ralph
    Twitter: mullescape

  4. Mull is different in many ways from Orkney, and there is interesting history re RBS/KPMG setting up Northlink as a private company and very quickly walking away away.
    nb Pentland Ferries can’t service all the needs of Orkney.
    Talk is cheap, giving a reliable ferry is hard, whatever Paul Graham thinks about the skills set needed.
    If Mull doesn’t want a subsidised service I don’t see the rest of Scotland having a problem with that. Good luck!

  5. Thanks for your thoughts.

    I’m just curious, but how would you say the situation for Mull is different? Can you expand?

    Cheers

    Ralph
    Twitter: mullescape

  6. Having just returned from holiday on Mull, my third, whatever happens concerning the Calmac ferries, it is obvious that unless the service is as good, or better, without raising the fares by a substantial amount, it will spell possible disaster for the residents there who have to make a living to enable them to stay there. We noticed this year, along with other visitors to whom we spoke , that there were noticeably less visitors than usual, maybe due to the present economic situation, and some traditional businesses have already closed. This is very sad to see, and it would be criminal to turn what is a beautiful destination for a holiday into a virtual ghost town.

  7. Hi Val

    I think you’ve hit the same concern I have. This route is a vital lifeline to Mull, bringing holiday parties, families, cyclists, eagle watchers, people on pilgrimage to Iona and, of course, local islanders and supplies.

    It’s a critical trade route for island life and, should prices rise or service levels drop on the Oban to Craignure run, it’s basically bad news for the island.

    Fortunately there are two other routes on to Mull, via Lochaline to Fishnish across the Sound of Mull and from Kilchoan to Tobermory from the Ardnamurchan peninsula. But, as ever, these routes are more circuitous and add to the travel time. There’s much to be said for them as they do allow you to enjoy a trip through Glen Coe, but if you don’t have the time to spare it’s not muich help.

    As I’ve said earlier, I’m not idealogically opposed to change… but on what terms? If we can protect what we have and actually improve upon the service as it is today, I’d be the last to object. It’s just that I have severe doubts that this will be an achievable outcome.

    I also have the nagging suspicion that it could simply be the Scottish government seeking ways of absolving itself of the responsibilty to protect these vital routes by being able to blame any drop in service or increase in costs to travellers on market forces. By then the damage will have most certainly been done.

    So, let’s explore the options but let’s also hope that all the people affected by any changes to who runs the Oban to Mull ferry service get a say in exactly what form any tendering of this route takes.

    Cheers

    Ralph
    Twitter: mullescape

  8. Thanks Archie

    Appreciate the explanation. Don’t know a great deal about how the ferry services operate for Orkney. Now, a teensy bit less ignorant.

    Cheers

    Ralph

  9. Hi Mullachs,

    Mull may be a bit of a dark horse and perhaps overlooked. A lot of interest has been expressed on Arran, Islay and Orkney about private ferry operators. I think it might be worth a side bet that Mull may take the lead.

    Why?

    Well for one it DOESN’T currently make a profit as was earlier posted on this thread. The last route-by-route figures CalMac published showed Oban-Craignure made a big loss and required a £929,000 annual subsidy.

    If Mull went the way of Orkney and had an islander start a ferry service (Andrew Banks at Pentland Ferries is born and bred as an Orcadian), Mull may very well enjoy what happened when Western Ferries started up on Islay in the 1970’s.

    Competition meant ferry fares halved. Two operators gave twice the frequency of sailing. The economy of Islay boomed.

    The ancillary modern day benefit is if Mull went with an island based operator, it could save CalMac almost £1,000,000 a year in operating subsidy and £1,000,000 in ship depreciation costs which may mean less cuts when John Swinney starts the painful process later this year.

    As for the comment about Pentland Ferries not being able to service Orkney in full. Well that is simply wrong. If Pentland Ferries were given the Northlink subsidy, they could service Orkney completely, and halve the fares.

    The earlier posters have very legitimate concerns about safeguarding lifeline ferry routes. But it isn’t all Reverend I.M. Jolly doom and gloom. Often ferry competition brings about big improvements.

    Just look at Arran. The mere thought of ferry competition and we had good old CalMac put a second ship service on in the summer.

    Best regards,

    Russ McLean.

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