Sally Campbell welcomed CalMac's senior representatives to the meeting and asked everyone to introduce themselves. Having been visiting the island for forty years, Stuart Wilson explained that he was no stranger to Arran, now owning a property in Brodick. He had recently been appointed to improve communication both within and without the company.
Robbie Drummond began by asking what was behind the formation of the Arran Ferry Action Group. Sally explained the widespread frustration of island residents about reliability of ferries and the Brodick ferry terminal following its construction, whose legitimate concerns had been ignored, resulting in many problems. Robert Cumming spoke of perceived lack of public confidence in the Ferry Committee to resolve these issues and also mentioned that attempts to establish effective dialogue via the Community Council had proved fruitless, hence the overwhelming public support for the Action Group.
1. Reliability & Resilience
Sam Bourne stated that, above all other considerations, what mattered most was that the ferry sailed. Currently, an average of 10% of all sailings were cancelled annually, with this peaking at 20% during August/September 2018. This had been devastating for Arran businesses, residents and visitors. He pointed out the vulnerabilities of the new pier in easterly winds, prevalent in spring and early summer, while Ardrossan was vulnerable to west/northwest winds. When Brodick remained operational there was a need for a port of refuge when Ardrossan was out of action. Of the ports available, Gourock was the most likely to be navigable in these conditions. He asked why Gourock was no longer used in such circumstances.
Robbie stated that Gourock is still used as a port of refuge by Bute and Argyll vessels, but only eight to ten times a year. He categorically denied there was an absence of shore crew. The main reason for avoiding Gourock was the knock-on effect on what is now a much busier schedule. The benefits of a six-hour diversion to Gourock, he maintained, would be offset by the loss of further sailings to Ardrossan, with vehicles unable to get across due to later sailings being fully booked. He reassured us that Gourock would continue to be considered for longer periods of disruption at Ardrossan, but that the Master would have to be confident of berthing there, with a contingency for an alternative berth if this proved unsafe. Sally asked whether all Masters were qualified to berth in Gourock; Robbie confirmed that those on that route would be. He went on to state that, contrary to widespread belief, weather conditions, in general, had not worsened over recent years, with the percentage of cancellations due to weather remaining more or less constant. Asked why, historically, the ferry had more frequently sailed to Gourock, Robbie pointed to the number of sailings now scheduled, which meant that lengthy diversions caused greater disruption to the timetable. However, he reiterated that Gourock would be considered for lengthy periods of disruption at Ardrossan and promised to send us the Masters' decision-making paper outlining the procedure now in place, together with further details of the issues relating to Gourock. He also gave an undertaking to publish on the CalMac website the reasons for not sailing to Gourock. Robbie stressed that Masters were highly trained, took their responsibilities extremely seriously and relied upon many resources to arrive at their decisions whether or not to sail. He assured us these decisions were never taken lightly.
With regard to Brodick, Paul Wheelhouse MSP, Minister for Energy, Connectivity & the Islands, had provided technical data relating to the reorientation of the pier, comparing projected downtime with Islay's Port Ellen. Sam pointed out the significant difference between Port Ellen and Brodick, in that Islay's ferries can be diverted to Port Askaig. He went on to assert that in moderate easterly or southeasterly weather conditions, Ardrossan/Brodick is the only route on CalMac's entire network that is disrupted, due to swell conditions. This was contributing to mounting concern about the redevelopment at Ardrossan, since Arran residents had previously been assured that the new Brodick pier was the best solution.
Robbie spoke of the ageing fleet, now averaging 23 years, but in eight cases over 30 years — beyond their life expectancy of 25-30 years. This had serious repercussions in terms of disruption, maintenance time, and very significant costs. The Isle of Arran specifically had suffered from oil distribution problems over the last two or three years, which had now been resolved.
Traffic across the network had increased by 30% over the last five years, with the Arran route now 50% busier. This was difficult to manage since everything was now operating at capacity, including hours of work. Whereas, historically, there had been a little spare time and capacity to cope with breakdowns and cancellations, today there was no margin and no flexibility. When a vessel breaks down there is no contingency plan, only a prioritisation of lifeline services with the remaining fleet.
A government grant of £4m had been invested to address obsolescence, but with 33 vessels, each of which was different, there was no consistency of parts. To make matters worse, crew interchangeability was restricted by the need to train them on each vessel. Lack of standardisation was a very real problem. A fleet of identical vessels would make stocking spares much more cost-efficient, enable failing components to be replaced across the fleet, and provide operational flexibility due to interchangeability.
Dry dock maintenance was also running at capacity across the three available docks. To reduce reliance on dry dock maintenance, an in-service maintenance team was now deployed and vibration analysis technology was being used to diagnose problems prior to them causing breakdowns. CalMac was now investing more than £15m on maintenance annually, with this set to rise further.
Robbie acknowledged that reliability had been below average on the Ardrossan/Brodick route, but restated his assertion that overall, CalMac achieved 99.6% reliability, way ahead of rail at 85%. However, these statistics excluded cancellations due to weather, the main cause of ferry user frustration, which were especially prevalent on the Ardrossan/Brodick route, which is now one of the worst affected on the network. Under-investment over the past fifteen years at Ardrossan was the main cause of this. CalMac was no longer prepared to use the Irish berth due to its poor state of repair, rendering it unsafe. Asked whether the proposed redevelopment at Ardrossan harbour would, as asserted by the Chair of the Ardrossan Task Force, Minister for Energy, Connectivity & the Islands, 'increase the reliability and resilience of the Ardrossan/Brodick route', Robbie confirmed that this was indeed the proposition, with the realignment of the berth providing a significantly better facility. He cautioned that successful simulations with the new vessel could only be confirmed once it entered service and that Ardrossan would remain a challenging port due to its narrow entrance, sharp turn and shallow depth.
Sally expressed the view of many island residents that economic precedents were now impeding their ability to travel at the time of their choosing, so restricting their lifeline service. Whilst sympathetic, Robbie explained that CalMac's Scottish government contract demanded that all passengers be treated equally on a first-come-first-served basis. There appeared to be no definition of a lifeline ferry service!
Robbie said he had been criticised for being very vocal in calling for long-term strategies for vessels and ports, as were implemented in other countries, particularly Scandinavia. CalMac's vessels have each been designed on a bespoke basis, on short-term decisions to address local needs. He thought it essential to have a longer-term strategy, with standardised vessels then being ordered to fulfil network needs. Investment was also urgently needed in ports, many having been adapted from fishing ports constructed in the 1960s and no longer adequately serving the needs of the CalMac fleet. He was adamant that a 30-, 40-, or even a 50-year strategy was now required. A new ferries plan was now being drawn up by the Scottish government, along with a strategic transport plan looking at all networks. A further plan, SPT 2, was looking at what investments need to be made.
Chris Attkins asked Robbie what he thought the Arran Ferry Action Group could do to help. Robbie suggested the need to get across to government the case for this long-term strategy. He reminded us that CalMac's current contract expires in three years.
Sam summarised this part of the discussion, pointing out the cost of the long-term vessel replacement plan and infrastructure update is a billion-pound project. He reminded everyone that while this was a significant financial and political challenge, similarly large projects had been successfully undertaken by the Scottish government. Robbie agreed, highlighting the economic value this would bring, particularly in terms of island sustainability. Stuart Wilson suggested that government tended to respond to potential crises, but expressed the hope that a more forward-thinking strategy could be adopted. He said that CalMac was engaging as much as possible within the terms of its contract, but encouraged the Action Group to lend its weight to that approach.
Pointing out that to date we had been refused access to information about the planned redevelopment of Ardrossan harbour, Sam then asked how CalMac intended to operate during this period. Robbie explained that CalMac had consistently asked for plans of the works schedule in order to plan their operations around the disruption. At some point it was anticipated this would become unsafe, when the ferry would make use of Troon on a temporary basis until the substantial works at Ardrossan were completed.
Sam explained our intention to invite the Ardrossan Take Force to present their plans to the people of Arran, when it was suggested that CalMac might invite one of their Masters to reassure the public following their experience on the simulator. Robbie agreed to this.
2. Brodick Connectivity
John Ford outlined the difficulties facing foot passengers in connecting with buses. The first problem was the enforced single-file egress from the ferry via the Passenger Access System (PAS), which significantly extended the time taken to disembark. The length of the walkway at 215 metres added further delay, followed by daunting stairs and another 200-metre walk to the bus stances. For many people this had proved just too long, resulting in them missing their onward bus transport, since the buses will only wait so long. In circumstances where foot passengers missed their connecting buses through no fault of their own, and faced a typical wait of two hours or more for the next bus, John proposed that CalMac should reimburse the cost of taking a taxi instead. He mentioned that during the summer, Michael Matheson MSP, Cabinet Secretary for Transport, Infrastructure and Connectivity had visited Arran with his family and they too had missed their bus, so he imagined he would be onside with such a consideration. This lack of connectivity had been raised repeatedly by various bodies since the new terminal opened and the travelling public were thoroughly fed up with it.
Thinking of tourists travelling to Arran as foot passengers, John highlighted the need for signage at Ardrossan to alert them to the time it would take them to disembark and connect with onward transport. Better signage to the lifts was also required at Brodick. Chris mentioned that it would be very helpful for all involved if passengers who needed assistance from CalMac staff upon arrival at Brodick were able to ask for this in advance at Ardrossan. These points were duly noted.
Robert Cumming, a retired doctor, said that notwithstanding the length people had to walk, the less able were further challenged by the inclines, which might look minimal, but were nevertheless an additional stress to the physically disabled, especially if they were hurrying to catch a bus.
Robbie Drummond explained that CalMac employed someone to look at timetable integration and volunteered to investigate the possibility of adjusting times to ameliorate these difficulties. With capacity constraints due to vehicles rather than foot passengers, he was keen to encourage people to rely on public transport and was reassured that Arran residents would greatly appreciate any adjustments to improve connectivity.
3. Ardrossan Ferry Terminal
Sally expressed widespread public concern that mistakes made with the Brodick ferry terminal would simply be repeated at Ardrossan, due in part to replicating the same basic building design, with its two-storey construction. Chris suggested that whereas the cost of changing the single-file access pod might now be prohibitive at Brodick, at Ardrossan a wider unit could be specified without significant penalty. Both Robbie and Stuart encouraged the Action Group to make representations to those responsible, demanding that foot passengers be properly catered for.
4. Concession Ticketing & Capacity
Following up previous correspondence with Robbie Drummond, which he felt had been misunderstood, John Ford presented a simple procedure to enable the pre-purchase of concession tickets at the time of booking a vehicle that would enable their validity to be audited to the satisfaction of SPT. He handed over an enlargement of a concession Travel Ferry Card, drawing attention to its unique serial number and photograph of the user. He then produced a concession ferry ticket, bearing the same unique ID number, which unambiguously ties the two together. John proposed that this number be added to the customer details recorded as part of their assigned CalMac customer ID used for booking their vehicle on the ferry, which would enable staff to verify the ticket purchase as authentic. Upon checking in at the terminal kiosk, the photo ID could be presented to verify the identity of the concession passenger when collecting their tickets. This procedure would circumvent the need to take significant time walking to and from the ferry terminal (or to clog up the drop-off parking bay) and add to the queue at the ticket desk. Robbie agreed to give this matter further consideration ahead of the eventual introduction of a new ticketing system in 18 months' time, which has finally been authorised.
Turning to the issue of capacity and availability, Robbie explained that current, extremely flexible terms and conditions for ticketing contributed to uncertainty. Hauliers utilising at least 80% of their annual block bookings were permitted to cancel without penalty with 24 hours' notice. Those cancelling more frequently had restrictions placed on their ability to block book. At present, private vehicle bookings could also be cancelled without penalty. Robbie went on to explain that ticket pricing was set by the Scottish government. Peak demand could no longer be controlled by price adjustments.
Stuart reminded the group that capacity was not only determined by space, but also by weight, which sometimes explained photographs of half-empty car decks.
5. Vessels for the Future
Referring to Robbie's demand for a long-term ferry strategy, Robert asked what sort of vessels he would like to specify. Top of his list was standardised and therefore interchangeable vessels. Other considerations would be determined by the type of service required. He felt strongly that accommodating crews on board contributed to resilience, because of the difficulty of recruiting crews from each 'home port', essential to maintain a responsive service. Crewing was necessarily increased by the provision of catering facilities. Robbie thought too much emphasis was put on the initial purchase price of vessels, at the expense of considering their whole-life operating costs. He was also concerned that some vessels were becoming too complicated and dependent on technology that would inevitably be superseded during their operating life. Simpler, single class vessels would offer more straightforward operation, with better transferability of equipment and staff.
Robbie confirmed that this service was tidally restricted. Robert and John explained that they had been trying for several years to get a limited winter service, but had been told this would not be safe because of the weather. However, this was contradicted by the service running when the Brodick ferry was unable to sail. They highlighted this as a viable escape route to the mainland. Robbie agreed to look into the reasons why this had been refused. He explained there was a formal timetable consultation process, enabling communities to request specific changes that were then considered. Sally mentioned that an increasing number of people were keen to participate in events up the West Coast over the winter, boosting the economic case for additional sailings from Lochranza. Robbie offered to help articulate the case for this provision.
7. Brodick Terminal Handrail
Chris reported to Robbie and Stuart that seven people had told the Arran Ferry Action Group they had either fallen themselves, or witnessed someone else falling down the stairs in the Brodick terminal. He expressed the Group's concern that if nothing was done, it was inevitable that eventually somebody would be seriously injured and handed over a collation of over fifty comments from passengers echoing this. It was understood by the Action Group that it had previously been claimed that fitting a central handrail to the public stairways would render them non-compliant with building regulations. Expert opinion had been sought, including that of the Building Surveyor at NAC who oversaw the construction of the ferry terminal. While the stairways were currently deemed compliant, had they been only 50mm wider they would have REQUIRED to have a central handrail. Fitting these now would still maintain the regulation 1000mm stairway width on both sides of the handrail and the NAC surveyor was sympathetic to this need. He had further confirmed that the stair flights are made from steel so it should be relatively simple to make a robust fixing for stanchions to support a handrail; there should be no need for balustrading, just a handrail on supports, which would be an inexpensive method of reducing the risk of injuries.
Robbie was very sympathetic to this proposal, but having previously been told that a central rail would breach health and safety, he would seek written confirmation from CMAL prior to us challenging this decision.
Sally invited the CalMac representatives to ask the Action Group questions.
Stuart encouraged the Group to communicate directly, committing to respond openly and quickly. Robbie concurred, offering to share any relevant information that was not confidential. He went on to say that the meeting had been instructive, for despite an enormous outreach programme, involving 120 meetings a year, he was concerned that CalMac was not hearing the real voice of communities.
The Action Group expressed their gratitude for the willingness with which Robbie and Stuart had consulted with them. They also pointed out how exceptionally helpful the Brodick CalMac staff continued to be in trying to help passengers.
Robbie emphasised his desire for good, honest, two-way conversation, promising to do all he could to improve the service, and when something was not possible, explaining why not.
The current state of our lifeline ferry service shows it is not fit for purpose in terms of reliability, resilience and infrastructure. The Arran Ferry Action Group is a new and fully representative lobbying group, set up to represent Arran interests in demanding service improvements and accountability in future investment decisions.