There is an ongoing debate in Scotland over the future operations of the ferry company CalMac (Caledonian MacBrayne), which is the UK’s largest ferry operator in terms of ships and destinations served and one of the largest transport operators in Scotland. Last week, the UK’s powerful National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers (RMT) increased calls for the company to be permanently returned to public ownership and operations in part due to system failures and interruptions in service.
CalMac was created 17 years ago as part of a restructuring designed to meet European Union requirements to eliminate government subsidies for the ferry operations. The company, which traces its roots back more than 170 years, was split into two pieces with Caledonian Maritime Assets Limited (CMAL) retaining ownership of CalMac vessels and infrastructure, including harbors, while operations were opened to public tender. The service routes were initially divided into three groups, with CalMac Ferries winning and maintaining the contracts for the service on the Clyde and to the Hebrides through 2024. Serco UK, a private company that operates a broad range of public services, won a separate contract starting in 2012 for the Northern Isles Ferry Services.
“People relying on lifeline ferries need certainty over jobs, training, and services. And the Scottish government must work with stakeholders to stave off a full-blown ferry crisis in lifeline communities and to implement a long-term plan for the future of these critically important public services,” said Mick Lynch, general secretary for the RMT.
CalMac runs 33 vessels to over 50 ports and harbors, across 200 miles of Scotland’s west coast. According to the company it operates 162,750 trips carrying over five million passengers annually.
The RMT points to the aging ships and lack of resilience in the system saying that the structure created by the split is undermining the operations which have wide social and economic consequences. They call the routes operated by CalMac vital to the island communities which depend on reliable delivery of the ferry service.
The system has suffered several high-profile failures in recent months. For example, one ferry was forced out of service at the end of 2022 and suspended service on one route with the company now saying that the vessel will be out of service at least until July. They have scrambled to provide alternatives but several other vessels, including one on a temporary nine-month charter, also urgently need repairs. The company highlights that four new ferries are being built in Turkey, but they will not reach Scotland till 2025.
Two other vessels being built in Scotland have turned into an embarrassment for the company due to problems with procurement, delays, and cost overruns. A report on the construction project said it would be cheaper to end the project and restart elsewhere but the Scottish government has said it will proceed with the funding to get these ferries built and into service.
“The Scottish government needs to commit to a permanently publicly owned People’s CalMac with proper investment and the exclusion of private profit,” said Lynch last week. “This would allow for successful long-term planning for improved services and resilience with a direct voice for CalMac workers and passengers.”
Transport Scotland published a study in 2017 followed by a report to the Scottish Parliament saying that it was the government’s desire not to put the next Clyde and Hebrides Ferry Services contract out to tender in 2024. The RMT now points out that the government has missed its deadline for re-tendering the contract. According to the union, it would take at least 18 months to develop and contact the tender.
The current contract expires in September 2024, which according to the RMT will now require the government to make a temporary extension by direct award to the existing contract operated by CalMac for the Clyde and Hebrides routes. The RMT also released a report and met with members of the government saying that there is a political consensus that the problems with CalMac need to be corrected now. They said restoring public ownership and operation would be a cost-effective solution to CalMac’s chronic problems.