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Caledonian Maritime Assets Ltd - the state-owned operation which controls many ferry terminals and owns all the ferries in use by CalMac - has come under fire once again from the influential Mull & Iona Ferry Committee.

The committee is the only effective opposition to the prevailing philosophy for islands transport as most political opposition ignores any detail of the problems which are besetting the ferry services in the Hebrides and Clyde, instead focusing on a party political blame game. 

In its latest report the committee looks at the supposed competitive tendering process. It says: "It also seems that ‘process’ overwhelms economics. For example – CMAL have a ‘process’ for achieving ‘value for money’ – they put all vessel builds out for competitive tender, and can therefore claim to have "fairly picked the best-value bid".

But there are two fatal flaws with this process:  CMAL and Transport Scotland publish what they expect to pay well in advance – just look at the CMAL corporate plan for evidence of this. A year ahead of selecting a winning bid, they had already published what they expected to pay. This doesn’t indicate that CMAL’s estimate was accurate, so much as the bidders can read what’s on the internet.

The design specification process is completely topsy-turvey, the report says. CMAL and Transport Scotland seem to start by specifying a ship solution, rather than identifying a transport requirement.

"There are many different ways of providing transport to an island; many different combinations of ship, timetable and route.

"If Transport Scotland specified the requirement in terms of vehicles/passengers/trucks to be carried each day, month and year; minimum operating hours and any other service requirements, competing designers and shipyards could then propose solutions, in the shape of different types, sizes and number of vessels. That would encourage a true competition of ideas and design.

"Instead, CMAL task a single designer to produce options within a restrictive and limiting ‘vessel requirement’ with little opportunity for innovation or competing ideas. For example, the ‘requirement’ that all vessels [for the Islay contract] should have a crew of 27 regardless of ferry size or type is as absurd as it might be to specify the same engine size, regardless of how large the ferry is.

"One of the key objectives of good vessel design is to optimise crewing requirement (by for example keeping all passenger spaces on one deck to make emergency mustering easier; or choosing evacuation equipment that can be operated by fewer crew members).

"It is truly baffling that instead, CMAL/CalMac make a particular crew number a ‘design requirement’, when the ‘requirement’ should instead be to optimise crewing around the design and operational needs of the vessel."

This is leading to bigger and bigger, and more expensive vessels each time. "CMAL and Scottish Government have a track record of buying complex, one-off, over-large, heavily-crewed, thirsty and expensive vessels. Poor vessel choices not only result in a poor service (notably the huge superstructures making vessels vulnerable to wind when berthing), but they make each new vessel more and more expensive. This is not just a waste of public funds, but it slows down vessel replacement – the government simply cannot afford to build many of these hugely expensive vessels, and the pace of renewal slows. So expensive vessel choices on one route impacts on the entire network."

And just as in Ullapool, Stornoway, Tarbert, Uig and Lochmaddy over the past decade, the vast vessels require huge investment in the ports to accommodate them. The total for those ports is around £100m.  And the newly ordered Islay ferries require the same support spending.  "CMAL’s monohull requires to have nearly £17 million spent in three different ports, much of it for dredging and rock removal to accommodate the deep draught of the new monohull (4 metres)," says the Mull and Iona Ferry Committee. 

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