'No fleet should operate this way': CalMac boss details 'truth' behind ferry fiasco
IF you were to give a snap summary of the position of Robbie Drummond, it would be that things, fingers crossed, can only get better.
Certainly if you look at the headlines on Scotland's ferry network, things seem to have only been getting worse month by month, year by year.
The word "ferry" is rarely used in isolation, usually coupled with the word "fiasco".
For Drummond, chief executive of operator CalMac, it must feel like a relentless bombardment.
Just this week three academics gave evidence to a Holyrood transport committee and all three were scathing of the current situation, blaming poor spending decisions; calling the productivity of CalMac "absolutely appalling"; and claiming there is a dearth of commercial maritime experience among senior managers.
"The three professors make some relevant points," Drummon said. "They don't always consider the full context to how we operate but the key thing is how we move forward from this and it's about having a long term strategy.
"It's frustrating for all my team and all of my staff to see us criticised but I can only emphasise that CalMac is doing the best it can and we have some fabulous employees and fabulous managers with deep, deep expertise.
"But at the moment we don't procure the vessels, that's done by CMAL, and we have to utilise the assets we are provided with."
Scotland's ferry network has been of escalating cost to taxpayers, suffered from ministerial interference and seen serious delays to the provision of new boats - including two new ferries currently years overdue and millions of pounds over budget.
One of the frequent criticisms of the trio responsible for ferry operation - Transport Scotland for policy and finance; CMAL for infrastructure; and CalMac for operations - is a lack of credible vision on how to resolve issues and create a fit for purpose service.
Drummond's position is that long term planning for ferries has been done backwards. "You look at service needs and then design infrastructure around those needs," he said.
"Too often the debate is around what's the best vessel instead of articulating what you need, what the economic aspirations are of the islands and what they need over the next 30 to 40 years and then you design infrastructure to fulfill those needs."
So why has that not been happening? Drummond, who has been with CalMac for 10 years and promoted to chief executive last year, adds: "It's starting to happen.
"Transport Scotland is publishing the Islands Connectivity plan and that plan is designed to look further ahead."
We are aboard the MV Bute, which is making its way from Wemyss Bay to Rothesay, Captain Calum Bryce up on the bridge. As fortune has it, this route is one of few that day on "green" status.
One of the crew tells me there is a pod of porpoises to the port side. I tell him I saw a submarine to the aft. "The black angel of death," he replies.
A bouncy puppy, a soft ball of golden fluff, is being made a fuss of by passengers and crew and gives off a few excited barks. Delightful. But no, Drummond says dogs are actually becoming a problem on the ferries - passengers have been bitten and owners don't always clean up their pets' mess.
In the summer and at weekends this is a popular tourist route but on a weekday, as today, it's full of commuters and regulars who clearly know and have a good rapport with the crew.
One of the staff members grabs a passenger round the shoulders to mug for the Herald photographer and she, in good spirit, gives him a playful scold using his first name.
It's the sort of customer service and local knowledge that Drummond is keen to emphasise.
He also says that staff are suffering from the relentless negative scrutiny to the extent that there are concerns about an increase in customer aggression towards crew members.
"It's incredibly tough. I encourage the staff to be fully accountable, to solve problems, to deliver the best possible service but to see the relentless criticism in the press is really hard on our staff and quite often CalMac is criticised for stuff that is really just not in our control or not decisions that we made but are policy matters," he said.
"I have staff coming to me all the time and saying can we get accurate information out there, get the truth out there, because they are feeling under attack.
"In today's environment when we see retail staff or other transport staff are subject to more and more aggressive behaviour we are seeing that at CalMac and it is just not right."
So what is the truth? Drummond goes to the introduction of the road equivalent tariff (RET) five years ago. This saw ticket prices fall between 30% and 70%, depending on route, and that has grown passenger traffic by 30%.
This is a success story for the islands but puts increased pressure on an ageing ferry fleet struggling with capacity, Drummond said.
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It makes it harder for the firm to manage any disruption because services are full so passengers can't be reallocated to the next sailing or to alternative routes.
Changing weather patterns are also causing issues. Anecdotally, ferry masters say they are seeing deeper and more extensive storms that mean that sea conditions take longer to recover, and wind patterns are changing.
The first three weeks of January 2022 had more weather disruptions than the whole of 2012 so, quite literally, the operating climate is increasingly difficult.
In the summer and winter, vessels are 100% deployed. "No fleet would ever operate in that way," Drummond said. "Most fleets would have spare vessels that you swap in and out depending on demand or what point of year it is. And that's our challenge."
The average age of the CalMac fleet is 24 but vessels tend to have a life expectancy of 25 to 30 years.
Their age means an increased repair bill once they enter dry dock: five years ago the firm spent £21 million on maintenance while last year the figure was £34m.
A lack of standardisation throughout the fleet causes severe challenge, particularly post-Brexit. CalMac has hundreds of suppliers, all European, that have moved their service offices from the UK.
Many parts on the ferries, including the engines of five vessels, are "heritage" - a polite word for obsolete - so there is no service support and sourcing parts can be impossible, meaning CalMac has the additional bother of making its own.
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Drummond said: "When we have a breakdown we have to go and secure parts and engineers from European manufacturers so if something goes wrong then we have to go chasing around Europe.
"In some cases we are now scouring the globe for parts.
"What we want to seeing going forward is a really clear strategy on procuring equipment at ports that is standardised because that means much more efficient supply chains and much more efficient deployment of staff across ports."
CMAL is currently in the process of procuring six major vessels and 10 smaller vessels that are standardised. Given CMAL's shoogly record of success on procurement, passengers may raise an eyebrow at this but Drummond insists it is a positive.
Drummond says CalMac will be speaking to Transport Scotland about having one or two of these new vessels on "hot lay up" so that they can be deployed at short notice.
If the fleet is standardised, as Drummond insists it must be, it will give increased value for money by influencing manufacturers – for equipment such as engines, evacuation systems and radar – with a "weight of spend".
Norway, Drummond said, has invested a significant amount in ensuring standardisation of fleet and equipment at ports alongside automation, which gives "slick, quick" ways of docking.
As far as positives go he also points to a new ticketing system that will bring CalMac into the digital age.
And Drummond points to the fact that the new ferries will bring with them around 350 to 400 new jobs for island communities and he is keen to promote the company's modern apprenticeship programme.
In fact, while we're on board a young chap comes over to introduce himself, saying he's been taken on as an apprentice and can't wait to get started.
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Drummond, who was a chartered accountant before joining CalMac, says one of his key focuses is seeing local communities thrive. He points to the fact that 70 per cent of CalMac staff come from the network, "embedding" the service in communities.
Drummond gives his apologies to service users who have been disrupted and says everyone at CalMac really cares about the problems caused to communities.
Island communities would likely say they want change, not apologies. Drummond insists change is coming.
CalMac has become the public face of ferry failure and takes the brunt of the criticism as a result but the critical issues Drummond details are the responsibility of CMAL.
So is his position that CMAL has been failing to do its job? Drummond pauses for a considerable moment before declining to be drawn.
He says: "I think the response to that is that the parliamentary committee has reviewed that in detail.
"I think from CalMac's perspective we will operate the assets we've been given to the best of our ability and we will work with Transport Scotland and CMAL to come up with the best strategy going forward."
It will be another few years before the public starts to see significant improvements in the ferry service as the 16 new vessels take to the water; the next 12 to 24 months will continue to be challenging, Drummond said. But he is optimistic and believes customers should be too.
He added: "I don't think we're asking for patience, we are asking for understanding that everyone at CalMac is doing their utmost to provide good service with the assets they have."