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Tuesday, September 26, 2023

Bringing Scotland’s Ferry Services to an Acceptable Standard

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Scotland’s ferry services need leadership in the form of long-term strategic-thinking and investment if they are to reach an acceptable standard for the people of Scotland, says Holyrood’s Net Zero, Energy & Transport Committee in a report published today.

The Committee’s recently completed inquiry explored what a modern and sustainable ferry service for Scotland would look like, whilst considering current and future provision.

Now, the wide-ranging report sets out the evolving needs of ferry users and how services could be better designed to meet those needs.

The report says that island communities have found the level of churn in the role of Transport Minister unhelpful in addressing the root issues of an aging fleet, lack of resilience and a pass-the-parcel culture in governance structures.

The Committee then say that to ensure continuity of service and avoid disruption, given the proximity to the end of the current contract, the Committee would, on this one occasion, support a direct award of the Clyde & Hebrides Ferry Service (CHFS) 3 contract and for an extended period of ten years.

This would be subject to legality and with the caveat of the Scottish Government, as the owners of CalMac, ensuring that it delivers real improvements for communities as, the report says, ‘evidence suggests the current tripartite arrangement is not working and must be reviewed’.

The Committee also asks the Scottish Government to consider bringing the functions of CMAL within Transport Scotland, to create ‘Ferries Scotland’ as an arm of Transport Scotland.

This could help streamline decision-making, improve understanding of ferry services within Transport Scotland and address some of the issues surrounding the current tripartite structure and its ‘blame-shifting culture.’

The Scottish Government’s forthcoming Islands Connectivity Plan (ICP) ‘represents the chance for a genuinely fresh start’; that it must be based on the needs of ferry users; and include a clear timetable for delivery. 

The plan must be ‘comprehensive, cohesive and collaborative’.

During the inquiry, the Committee visited Arran, the Western Isles and Orkney to see and hear for themselves the experiences of islanders, many of whom have suffered the disruptive effects of unreliable services.

Speaking as the report was published, Committee Convener, Edward Mountain MSP, said:

“As our report shows, a frequent change in transport ministers means problems are not being solved.

“Having worked with Fiona Hyslop on this report as Deputy Convener of the Committee, we know she has experience of the issues covered and wish her well in her new role.

“On this occasion, to ensure continuity and avoid disruption we are supportive of a direct award of the ferry contract to CalMac but we stress that this is wholly dependent upon significant service improvements being delivered and a change to the tripartite arrangement. 

“We consider a direct award of the next CHFS3 contract to be the least disruptive option given the proximity to the end of the current contract.

“The report we have published is extensive but overall, we hope it will have a positive impact on the forthcoming Island Connectivity Plan and help pave the way for a ferry service that is future-proofed, compatible with Scotland’s net zero goals and above all, meets the needs of islanders.

“We are grateful to everyone who took the time to share their opinions, experiences and expertise with us – whether this be via oral or written evidence or during our visits to the islands where communities shared with us their lived experience which must be at the heart of future decision making.”

Further points/recommendations made within the report include, for example that;

  • the Scottish Government, as part of its Fair Fares Review, explore the option that young people in ferry-dependent communities should have concessionary fares for ferries.
  • better information in relation to cancellations, delays, customer satisfaction and socio-economic factors such as depopulation be made available to aid understanding, drive improvement and create more trust in the service.
  • Scottish Government should set out what concrete steps it is taking to reduce the average age of its vessels to 15 years.
  • ferry design should be standardised to achieve best value and efficiency, both in the construction and operation of the vessels.
  • consideration should be made as to whether routes currently served, or due to be served, by existing major vessels could be better provided by a higher number of smaller vessels.
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