COMMENT: CalMac must turn its focus to customers

The Hebrides at Uig Pic, Willie Urquhart

After recent ferry woes former Naval Commodore Angus Ross, who lives in Uig, Skye, has a message for CalMac and Transport Scotland.….

Following Kenny MacLeod’s Mayday [WHFP Friday 5th August] I thought it might be helpful if I made a suggestion based on a lifetime of specifying, managing and delivering contracted services both within Government and subsequently in the outsource industry.

Mr MacLeod highlighted the lamentable state of the Western Isles fleet procured though CMAL and I will not dwell here on the obvious deficiencies of that programme as it is somewhat in hand – though not as efficiently as it could be, and it will take some time to fix.

More immediately Transport Scotland could, in managing (and ensuring delivery) of the contracted services from CalMac, make a dramatic improvement very quickly through meaningful intervention in the CalMac contract.

A big improvement could be made by insisting that CalMac became a customer facing organisation.

It is clear from seeing the way they manage the service and from sailing on their vessels that this is not their focus.

Their focus seems to be almost exclusively on ensuring that the crew are fully satisfied.

Examples include closing areas of the ship and service points at will even when fully crewed, giving compensatory rest time the day after some disruption (despite the hours worked often being less than on other schedules even on the same route) and an inability to use all available port infrastructure (even when it is specifically designed for the ship operating to that port).

All of these issues frustrate their customers as do the never ending pointless rules, for example the numbers of bicycles that can be carried, dogs having tickets etc.

They now have so much “noise” in the introductory on board announcements that most folk give up and resume their conversations well before the mid-point.

I note that they have even adopted the airline style of additional information on how to fit a life jacket. This is yet another example of their lack of understanding of the passengers that they are supposed to be serving or the outcome required of the announcements.

Risk or how to mitigate it appears not to be understood, instead they try to avoid it which causes increasing rates of cancellation on the basis of weather forecasts rather than actual weather experienced.

Those of us who live in the operating area know that the forecast is not always (often) correct and it results in ships being needlessly tied up when fishing boats ply their trade in the Minch.

This issue was exacerbated recently with the breakdown of MV Hebrides which resulted in a three-day outage of service before a replacement was found.

I am sure there will be a “let” in the contract for the breakdown although questions might be asked as to how the same fault appeared on three occasions.

The real issue is that the vessel sent was clearly not able to operate on the route as it completed less than 50 per cent of the services and was “stormbound” in a very mild force five wind when our yachts in the Portree Sailing Club were out on a race.

That shows either that the CalMac hierarchy in Inverclyde have no idea of the capability of their vessels or the real weather conditions in their main operating area, or they failed to put sufficiently experienced officers aboard to operate the vessel.

By failing on one count or another they proved yet again that they had no interest in serving the public in the Islands who rely on this “lifeline” service.

The Scottish Government likes to compare itself to the Nordic countries, I therefore suggest a comparative review of the service ethos of the ferries in Denmark, Sweden and Norway would be a good place to start to bring back the understanding of what a lifeline service looks like.

May I urge you to take action to ensure that although the gamekeeper and the poacher are close cousins, the gamekeeper does his job and focuses CalMac on what they should be doing and not what they are currently doing.

A stark contrast is seen between this operation and the Serco operated Northern Isles service. In due course a comparison of operating performance will make interesting reading.

If not available publicly (as our Government seems remarkably shy about these matters) I am sure that FOI questions will elicit the facts, unless of course all the data has been lost.

I look forward not simply to a response but to see Transport Scotland management of the CalMac contract deliver results that make a noticeable improvement in months.

It will take years to sort out the ageing fleet.

Commodore Angus Ross, Royal Navy