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Largest Ferry Operator in Scotland to Spend Record Investment in Fleet Overhaul Programme

8th November 2019
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Operating on Scotland's west coast is CalMac's Hebridean Isles as AFLOAT captured in this scene at Kennacraig on the Mull of Kintyre from where the ferry serves Islay. Built in 1985, the ferry is one of the oldest in the fleet which this winter will be undergoing a record £9m investment overhaul. The veteran vessel on several occasions stood in on Scotland's east coast for NorthLink Ferries where private operator Serco last month was awarded a £450m contract by the Scottish Government to continue maintaining Northern Isles services to Orkney and Shetlands Islands. See below: news update on the contract. Operating on Scotland's west coast is CalMac's Hebridean Isles as AFLOAT captured in this scene at Kennacraig on the Mull of Kintyre from where the ferry serves Islay. Built in 1985, the ferry is one of the oldest in the fleet which this winter will be undergoing a record £9m investment overhaul. The veteran vessel on several occasions stood in on Scotland's east coast for NorthLink Ferries where private operator Serco last month was awarded a £450m contract by the Scottish Government to continue maintaining Northern Isles services to Orkney and Shetlands Islands. See below: news update on the contract. Photo: Jehan Ashmore

The largest ferry operator in Scotland, state-owned Caledonian MacBrayne (CalMac) is to spend more than £9 million targeted at vessel resilience in a response to challenges of an increasing average age of fleet.

According to CalMac, this is in addition to the annual planned maintenance expenditure to ensure every vessel is ready for another year of supporting communities across the west coast. The resilience programme is more than double the amount spent last year.

Including inter-island services, CalMac runs a total of 49 routes served by 33 vessels each of which is required to undergo a period of annual dry dock maintenance.

'Trying to ensure that every vessel gets the proper levels of maintenance and upgrades, while keeping lifeline ferry services running is an extremely complex operation,' said CalMac's Director of Asset Management, Julie Philpott.

'Not all vessels are suitable for every route and harbour, meaning the matrix we need to design to ensure service continuity is long in the planning.'

'We try where we can, within the resources available to us, to provide as seamless a service as possible during this period, matching suitable vessels to cover routes. But getting every vessel in for maintenance requires us to do a certain amount of manoeuvring. We try and keep inconvenience to a minimum, and hope the travelling public can understand why we have to make the vessel changes that we do at this time of year.'

The £9 million investment is being targeted at vessel resilience in a fleet which on average is increasingly ageing. This is in addition to the annual planned maintenance expenditure to ensure every vessel is ready for another year of supporting communities across the west coast. The resilience programme  is more than double the amount spent last year.

Including inter-island services, CalMac runs a total of 49 routes served by 33 vessels each of which is required to undergo a period of annual dry dock maintenance.

'Trying to ensure that every vessel gets the proper levels of maintenance and upgrades, while keeping lifeline ferry services running is an extremely complex operation,' said CalMac's Director of Asset Management, Julie Philpott.

'Not all vessels are suitable for every route and harbour, meaning the matrix we need to design to ensure service continuity is long in the planning.'

'We try where we can, within the resources available to us, to provide as seamless a service as possible during this period, matching suitable vessels to cover routes. But getting every vessel in for maintenance requires us to do a certain amount of manoeuvring. We try and keep inconvenience to a minimum, and hope the travelling public can understand why we have to make the vessel changes that we do at this time of year.'

On top of the regular cyclical planned maintenance CalMac are carrying out more then 90 major projects to the fleet this year. This includes new engines on the MV Loch Striven and Loch Tarbert, replacement pitch control systems on the MV Clansman and Isle of Lewis, a new bow thruster on the MV Hebridean Isles (above: photo/story at Kennacraig), replacement ramps and new generators on various vessels.

'For those not involved in the refit process the sheer scale of the tasks involved is hard to picture. Last year we fitted more then 11km of electrical wiring and this year new CCTV networks and pitch control systems alone will see 18km of new cable installed,' said Julie.

'Some communities may lose their regular vessel for longer periods due to the scale of the work being carried out this winter. However, this additional time out of timetable will help support delivery of a more resilient service in the long term. Customers will be able to see meaningful improvements in service,' she added.

Work on the vessels is carried out at yards in Greenock, Troon, Liverpool, Ardmaliesh, Leith and Aberdeen. The North Sea port Afloat adds is where NorthLink Ferries operated by private company Serco last month was awarded a £450m contract from the Scottish Government to continue serving Orkney and the Shetland Islands. 

Since the announcement, according to BBC News, CalMac is challenging the Scottish government's decision not to give it a contract to run Northern Isles ferries.

Serco won a six-year contract in 2012 and it was named the preferred bidder to continue the service. However CalMac, which is owned by the Scottish government, says its tender was cheaper than Serco's.

For more on the report from last month click here.

Published in Ferry
Jehan Ashmore

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Jehan Ashmore

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Jehan Ashmore is a marine correspondent, researcher and photographer, specialising in Irish ports, shipping and the ferry sector serving the UK and directly to mainland Europe. Jehan also occasionally writes a column, 'Maritime' Dalkey for the (Dalkey Community Council Newsletter) in addition to contributing to UK marine periodicals. 

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Ferry & Car Ferry News The ferry industry on the Irish Sea, is just like any other sector of the shipping industry, in that it is made up of a myriad of ship operators, owners, managers, charterers all contributing to providing a network of routes carried out by a variety of ships designed for different albeit similar purposes.

All this ferry activity involves conventional ferry tonnage, 'ro-pax', where the vessel's primary design is to carry more freight capacity rather than passengers. This is in some cases though, is in complete variance to the fast ferry craft where they carry many more passengers and charging a premium.

In reporting the ferry scene, we examine the constantly changing trends of this sector, as rival ferry operators are competing in an intensive environment, battling out for market share following the fallout of the economic crisis. All this has consequences some immediately felt, while at times, the effects can be drawn out over time, leading to the expense of others, through reduced competition or takeover or even face complete removal from the marketplace, as witnessed in recent years.

Arising from these challenging times, there are of course winners and losers, as exemplified in the trend to run high-speed ferry craft only during the peak-season summer months and on shorter distance routes. In addition, where fastcraft had once dominated the ferry scene, during the heady days from the mid-90's onwards, they have been replaced by recent newcomers in the form of the 'fast ferry' and with increased levels of luxury, yet seeming to form as a cost-effective alternative.

Irish Sea Ferry Routes

Irrespective of the type of vessel deployed on Irish Sea routes (between 2-9 hours), it is the ferry companies that keep the wheels of industry moving as freight vehicles literally (roll-on and roll-off) ships coupled with motoring tourists and the humble 'foot' passenger transported 363 days a year.

As such the exclusive freight-only operators provide important trading routes between Ireland and the UK, where the freight haulage customer is 'king' to generating year-round revenue to the ferry operator. However, custom built tonnage entering service in recent years has exceeded the level of capacity of the Irish Sea in certain quarters of the freight market.

A prime example of the necessity for trade in which we consumers often expect daily, though arguably question how it reached our shores, is the delivery of just in time perishable products to fill our supermarket shelves.

A visual manifestation of this is the arrival every morning and evening into our main ports, where a combination of ferries, ro-pax vessels and fast-craft all descend at the same time. In essence this a marine version to our road-based rush hour traffic going in and out along the commuter belts.

Across the Celtic Sea, the ferry scene coverage is also about those overnight direct ferry routes from Ireland connecting the north-western French ports in Brittany and Normandy.

Due to the seasonality of these routes to Europe, the ferry scene may be in the majority running between February to November, however by no means does this lessen operator competition.

Noting there have been plans over the years to run a direct Irish –Iberian ferry service, which would open up existing and develop new freight markets. Should a direct service open, it would bring new opportunities also for holidaymakers, where Spain is the most visited country in the EU visited by Irish holidaymakers ... heading for the sun!

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