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Caledonian MacBrayne by David Cannon, Head of Stakeholder Communications, David MacBrayne Group: Glasgow meeting of 22 October 2019

 David Cannon, Head of Stakeholder Communications, David MacBrayne Groupd

David Cannon, Head of Stakeholder Communications, David MacBrayne Group

© John Yellowlees, 2019

David Cannon has been eleven years with Caledonian MacBrayne, joining from Scottish Enterprise where he had a background in transport innovation. That makes him a relative newcomer in a business with a tradition of family service down the generations where it is a longserving employee's right to be buried with his coffin wrapped in the company flag.

CalMac is part of the Highlands and Islands DNA, and aims to generate economic and social value for coastal and island settlements by being a community-focused enterprise. It seeks to be confident, ambitious and innovative, taking a strategic long-term view and achieves over 96% reliability even after cancellations for allowable causes such as weather, harbour defects or going to the rescue of another vessel are taken into account.

Greater safety consciousness accounts for an 800% rise over two years in reporting of near-misses. Customer satisfaction is up six points to 91% despite disruption in the summer of 2018. CalMac was Ferry Operator of the Year at the 2018 National Transport Awards, and has created 23 apprenticeships with new partners City of Glasgow College and Forth Ports, all 2017 apprentices having secured permanent roles. An online channel sells tours and merchandise, and retail sales have recently exceeded ©1M over three consecutive months for the first time. Other successes have included winning a contract to manage Perth Harbour where traffic in timber, fishmeal and aggregates is buoyant and a new environmental strategy that reduces waste by promoting recycling.

The company supports 5883 jobs, and 70% of its 1700 employees live in island or coastal communities, while over 95% of its 2018 apprentices were recruited from such places. One in every forty-eight people in Oban is supported by CalMac.

Between 2016/7 and 2017/8 the number of booked sailings rose from 138220 to 144902. Mechanical cancellations were up from 696 to 794, weather ones from 2337 to 3010, so while actual reliability fell from 97.5 to 96.9%, contractual reliability was up from 99.5 to 99.6%. However our weather is undoubtedly worsening, with sharper spells of wild conditions, and public tolerance of its impact is diminishing.

Transport Scotland has agreed a variation in route prioritisation so that whenever a ship has to be taken out of use it is no longer simply a case of diverting a replacement from a two ship route. In service maintenance is now accompanied by targeted investment to improve reliability, and consultations with key stakeholders and community groups are now accompanied by use of social media and advice from a Community Board.

Maintenance of older vessels can be demanding, and spare parts have had to be brought from Belgium or installed under the direction of an expert sitting on a beach in Dubai. Transport Scotland has authorised a ©3.5M spend on fleet upgrades in 2019/20 to improve safety, reliability, operations and the customer experience during the winter refit in dry dock.

Thirty-three ships serve 53 ports on 49 routes, carrying annually 5.5M passengers, 1.4M cars, 80000 commercial vehicles and 10500 coaches. Since 2006 ships and harbours have been in the ownership of a separate entity, Caledonian Maritime Assets Ltd and David MacBrayne subsidiary CalMac Ferries has been joined by sister companies for the purposes of offshore crewing and of running new business Marchwood Military Port. Bidders for the contract thst CalMac won in that year to run the Clyde and Hebrides ferries were all invited to transfer their crew to offshore management so that they should be at no disadvantage in competing against overseas bids and jobs might thus be protected, and CalMac's brassplate company for this purpose is in Guernsey.

Winning a contract to operate in partnership with a vehicle importer Marchwood through which the Army moves its kit to and from overseas theatres of war in partnership with a vehicle importer has provided useful extra income, but the Clyde and Hebridean ferry services contract specifying which routes, timetables and ships CalMac should operate is heavily regulated and gives no role in owning or procuring ships and no direct involvement in maintaining or improving port or harbour facilities. A modest annual profit of ©1.8M is returned to Scottish ministers.

The second Clyde and Hebridean contract won by CalMac is more flexible as befits the greater trust with which the company has become regarded once it proved during the first one that it was no buccaneer but has empathy with its customers that reflects its deep roots in their communities. Other than making an input to the specification, it has had no involvement in the difficulties surrounding delivery by Ferguson Marine of the MV Glen Sannox and MV Catriona which with the new MV Loch Seaforth on the Stornoway-Ullapool route were to be the only recent additions to its fleet. CalMac are often asked why they do not have a spare boat on standby, but there is always a mobilisation cost since seafarers are allowed to be conversant with only three vessels at a time and in reflection of the intermittent procurement over the years there is no standard type of ship - which is an acknowledgement also of the state of the harbours, the majority of which were designed for shallow paddle-steamers.

The present Government's introduction of Road Equivalent Tariff has altered the balance between passengers and cars, with many more islanders now taking their cars rather than parking at their port of embarkation or using public transport - with an unintended consequence for its environmental credentials and for bus subsidies. Through ticketing has wilted because of the administrative burden of dividing income between so many bus companies. The old Hopscotch ticket was also a victim of RET whose fares structure encourages takeup of onboard capacity by motor homes, and the rather raw fares structure sees popular weekends booked months in advance but an encouragement otherwise to last-minute travel which can pose a challenge in trying to squeeze all the vehicles on board. No discount analogous to the Highland Railcard is now on offer to islanders, yet centralisation of schooling and of NHS facilities has made them more reliant on ferry services, and the lifeline character of the network has inhibited any Hurtigruten-type innovation.

CMAL own only 24 out of the 53 ports, with others in the hands of local authorities, harbour trusts or in the case of Ardrossan ownership by Peel Ports whose investment to accommodate the new Glen Sannox is still awaited. Representations have been made to the new Scottish Infrastructure Commission about the need to improve the network.

With EU procurement rules already written into UK law and only 17 crew members not holding UK citizenship, the main concern over Brexit is about availability of spare parts. For the future, the age profile of the workforce which reflects past recruitment troughs must be rejuvenated. Loganair is not seen as a competitor since sea and air have such different capabilities, and with the Scottish Government taking the view that splitting the present bundle of routes would weaken the network the possibility exists of further small ones following the example of Kerrera by coming under CalMac.

Notwithstanding its place as a whipping-boy for islander opinion, CalMac retains a deep loyalty in the affections of the communities that it serves. This could be seen in the company's support for the Royal Scottish National Mod just held very successfully in Glasgow, and in the words of its latest promotional music theme, long may the call be for its ships to Bring Us Home on the Sea.

Report and photograph by John Yellowlees.


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