We need to talk about ferries

Scotland’s island communities are poorly served and the tendering and shipbuilding process has been a shambles. Could democratising the whole system improve the process of planning transport networks and ferry services?

In 2015, as work started on the building of two new ferries for Arran and the Hebrides, I visited the Ferguson yard in Port Glasgow.  The enthusiasm was palpable.  Boats being built on the Clyde again!

6 years on, it’s all gone wrong – 4 years late and £100m over budget.  2 more ferries for Islay and Jura will now be built in shipyards in Poland, Romania or Turkey.

The first ferry – Glen Sannox, due to ply the Firth of Clyde Ardrossan-Brodick run – is still in the yard.  It won’t start service until late Summer 2022.  The second boat, known as Hull 802, will begin sailing the Outer Hebrides/Skye route a year later.

If you travel to Arran, or other islands off the west coast of Scotland, you’ll know how sorely needed the new vessels have been for a long while now.  The service between ports is often sub-standard.

For Arran residents and visitors this invariably means cancellation, because bad weather makes Ardrossan harbour unsafe.  Or the linkspan – the ramp between port and deck – is broken.  This is also a problem at Gourock, once the alternative to Ardrossan.

There are other pretexts for service breakdowns.  Last month, the front page of the Arran Banner (which must have the words ferry, fiasco and fury forever set on its printers) reported that all sailings to Arran were cancelled, because 2 of Ardrossan port’s 23 staff tested COVID-positive.  No contingency, just everything shut for a day (7 crossings, thousands of passengers and hundreds of vehicles).

For some, the ferries hold connotations of bucket-and-spade getaways; it’s a pleasure to get on the boat, have a drink, a portion of chips and relax.  But, for islands like Arran, tourism is their anchor.  Reliability of scheduled crossings is fundamental to economic survival.  If boats don’t sail, the hotels, holiday lets, cafes, pubs, shops and countless other businesses suffer the loss immediately.

For islanders especially, these lifeline services are vital for work, deliveries and medical appointments.  If you’re sick on Arran, it’s compounded by worrying if you’ll be able to reach the hospital.  The only other way is to be helicoptered to the mainland.

Islanders and regular visitors also question some of the infrastructure decisions made.  For example, the Brodick harbour project cost over £30m but, as the Arran Ferry Action Group says, the new berth is misaligned, meaning it’s harder to dock in the frequent easterly winds.

Brodick’s new terminal building, a clunky block, makes the walk to and from the boat much longer than the old gangway.  Many passengers – with kids, buggies, luggage, golf carts and dogs in tow – have to use the vertiginous stairs.

Why was so much spent on the Brodick facility when the crying need was (and still is) the seaboard entrance to Ardrossan?  Who makes these decisions, and why?  How much do the construction, service and network of these key links involve the people who use, care and pay for them?

The last 2 questions can read across to other transport services in Scotland, like trains and buses.  Following record levels of passenger (not customer!) dissatisfaction with Dutch company Abelio’s franchise, Scotrail will soon come back into public ownership.  Is this a chance to ensure that the poor bloody passengers, and workers, are part of the future decision-making process?

First Bus runs over 100 routes in Glasgow.  There are constant complaints of unreliability, services being cut and fares hiked.  A Glasgow survey of nearly 3000 bus users showed only 16% satisfaction.  Unite, campaign groups and the public want the present bus networks – profit-driven yet heavily subsidised by tax and ratepayers – brought under public control.

Ferries, trains and buses in Scotland happen to, not with, people.  It’s their business, not ours.  Like it or lump it.

The model of publicly funded services being left to a company to run has become commonplace throughout the UK.  What the Thatcherites couldn’t flog off and privatise, they farmed out to profit-making entities, a trend spurred on by Blair/Brown governments.

This has facilitated the now sickening levels of corruption throughout British public life, especially when it comes to who gets the lucrative contracts.

You can even buy a peerage and Scottish ministerial office.  Malcolm Offord scraped fifth place on the Lothian MSP candidates’ list, and voters rejected him.  But he’d given the Tory party £147,500 and is now Lord Offord of Garvel, number three at the Scottish Office.

At Holyrood, with proportional representation, levels of graft and sleaze are as nothing compared to Westminster.  Yet our civic amenities still tend towards top-down management, lack of control for users and unreliable quality of service.

The point of independence is to make our country a better place to live, work and be.  If business as usual is second-rate, then we’re bound to campaign for a different kind of Scotland, one that serves its people properly.

Being a better nation also means becoming a more democratic one, so that ordinary people can have a say in the running of transport – and education, health, social services, utilities etc.

How exactly can we start to improve our transport networks and ensure that they come to be truly public in terms of participation?  Does it have to wait until we achieve independence?  Shouldn’t it be part of the push towards Scotland becoming its own nation again?  Independence isn’t a shortcut to get past these issues, it’s a means of engaging with them.

We’re not talking about token consultative committees, tacked on to existing structures.  It needs a shift in power away from self-selecting and appointed individuals towards people whose vested interest is the service itself.

Though ultimately Abelio got its jotters from the Transport Secretary, it seems unlikely that a bigger shake-up – involving the public – will spring from Holyrood, an institution settled in its norms of influence and pressure.  Lobbyists gonna lobby.

A radical re-think on the buses might come from local councils, but it would probably be a defensive move, to curb a clamour of passengers’ complaints.

As to our beleaguered ferries, is there a realistic way to get passengers engaged in control of the service?  West coast ferries’ operator Calmac have appointed their own community board, but why not get Arran Ferry Action Group and other local voices into the main boardroom?

How do you even start to set up a system to incorporate the public?

Before we devise mechanisms for participation, maybe the vital spark of democratic control is shown by the gumption of the recently formed Govan Free State, which aims to reclaim our freedom and collective responsibility from below.  There is no one coming. There is only us.

More bambassadors and poeticians now!


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  1. Jim Stamper says:

    Although not a matter about the users having a say, there is an Australian based company run by a Scot who have ferry designs based on catamaran rather than single hull which are considerably cheaper than those single hull versions being built on the Clyde and much more fuel efficient to run due to the lower water displacement with the catamaran design. The Australian company have indicated these could be built under licence on the Clyde. Why are these not being progressed to answer the urgent needs of our islands?

    1. Iain says:

      I’m guessing/presuming here (I’m no naval architect), but with catamaran hulls typically having a wider span, and an overall radically different design, it would likely require a total rebuild of all the major ports (link-spans, piers etc) in order to accommodate them. Historically CalMac have cascaded their fleet between the winter and summer seasons to other routes, with vessels often built with a versatility to serve multiple different port setups as required. Possibly catamarans would have to be more route specific? All the same it’s an option, and the kind of out-of-the-box thinking that is definitely required right now.

  2. Topher Dawson says:

    Great article Max. Lifeline ferry links are often poorly run. As an example when a new ship was being planned for the Ullapool – Stornoway route many consultees urged Calmac to build two smaller ships rather than one large one. Advantages would have been that in the busy summer season two ferries could run a shuttle service, in the winter one could do the service while the other was away for maintenance, or stand in for another service elsewhere. The whole service would have been more resilient against breakdowns. They would not have had to spend millions extending the piers at Ullapool and Stornoway for the large vessel and the smaller vessels would have fitted many other ports.

    But no, the then MD decided one big vessel was cheaper to run so they built the Loch Seaforth which is too big for many other ports, and causes havoc when it breaks down. Ironically the subsequent MD disagreed with the decision but by then it was too late.

    The book “Who Pays the Ferryman?” by Roy Pederson is a very good look at ferries in Scotland. It has a lot of detail about the history of the industry and informed ideas from Norway where there is a very extensive network of state subsidised ferries. One of his main points is that travelling by road or rail is always quicker and cheaper per mile than going by sea, so it makes sense to have the shortest possible ferry route between the closest two points of land. This makes it more economic to run frequent and out of hours services and each ferry is more productive. It is more cost effective, he argues, to invest in improving the road to remote ferry ports than to build “ocean liners”.

    The privately run Pentland Firth crossing is a case in point.

    He also urges the building of standard “no frills” ferries which can fit into multiple ports so the operators can shift ferries around without the complications of different sizes and types of ferry and berth. If the crossing is short, the ferry does not need to have such expensive facilities on board.

    Anyway it is good you have raised this topic!

    Topher Dawson, Ullapool.

  3. Mons Meg says:

    Why can’t islands own and run their own ferries in response to local need? This would make them much more independent of external decision-making (free states) after the model of Govan.

  4. Niemand says:

    Is this not all ultimately the responsibility of Holyrood? Especially so since most of the routes are heavily subsidised, i.e. with tax payers’ money. Why have they allowed this fiasco to unfold? It is the grossest of incompetence.

    1. Mons Meg says:

      Is this not an argument for independence, the fact that the islanders are suffering because of the incompetence of a government in Holyrood that many of them didn’t vote for?

      1. Niemand says:

        Could well be though these things cost a lot of money, money presumably the islands do not have locally so would they not always be beholden to some extent to those holding the purse strings?

        1. Mons Meg says:

          I’m presuming ferries used to operate independently in the islands before the advent of big government. Maybe the operations would have to be scaled back to local need to make them sustainable (no ‘ocean liners’ and the berths to accommodate them), but that might not be a bad move from an environmental point of view. In Denmark, the shorter crossings between its 443 islands are served by fleets of small electric ferries.

          Okay, the tourist trade would like additional commercial capacity to maximise the number of customers and customer vehicles it can ferry in and out of the islands, but I don’t see why the general public should subsidise the cost of providing that capacity. Maybe the trade itself should operate or commission its own additional tourist services and recover the full cost of doing so from its customers.

          1. J Galt says:

            It’s a complicated history, however the ferries have never “operated independently in the islands”.

            They have always been owned and operated by interests outwith the communities served.

          2. Mons Meg says:

            Independently of big government, I meant. I’m sure the bonnie boat that sped the lad who was born to be king over the sea to Skye was privately owned and operated.

          3. J Galt says:

            Mons Meg – Even when they were privately run by MacBraynes there was heavy dependency on “Big Government” in the shape of the Mail contract without which many of the “lifeline” services would have been uneconomic. MacBraynes concentrated their capital on “Tourist” services and neglected the lifeline runs such as the Outer Islands Mail service – complaint was constant. Only in the mid 20th century when government became more directly involved did things improve.

            Things on the Clyde were very different – the railways were in charge and offered a sometimes extravagant level of service, however the services were never profitable and cutbacks ensued. By 1969 BR was glad to offload the ferries to the Scottish Office in the form of the Scottish Transport Group.

          4. Mons Meg says:

            I meant ‘privately owned and operated’ by and for the islanders themselves. I mean, how did the islanders manage to move themselves, their freight, and their visitors between the kyles and isles before Davie MacBrayne took over the various mail runs?

  5. MBC says:

    We never seem to be able to do anything right. People point the finger of blame at their pet hate figures. But there are basic deeper issues of competence and responsibility, regardless of who is at the helm.

    My Dad recalled his Norwegian employers’ experience of ordering a ship to be built at a works in the Clyde in the 60s and 70s. The work was late and shoddy, and over budget, and when the clients finally go the ship they found it had been vandalised by somebody scrawling sweary words with a diamond tool over all the windows. The firm decided it would never again order a ship from a Scottish yard.

    I don’t know what the answer is, but it seems deep rooted and endemic to me, and I don’t know how we go about fixing it.

    Dad couldn’t understand why the men building the ship didn’t have more pride in their work. I tried to explain, rather limply, that workers felt cheated and exploited by bosses (because they were) and this soured them. But Dad couldn’t understand why, if you were a builder, that basic pride in your work and craft would be sacrificed for the sake of bitterness and pique.

    1. Interesting story MBC. If you feel your being exploited the romantic charm of craft and ‘pride in your work’ fades …

    2. Mons Meg says:

      Exactly as Mike says: under the relations of production that comprise capitalism, workers relate to the product or embodiment of their work as to an alien object rather than as to an expression of their own humanity or ‘species-being’ (which is what humans qua humans do; namely, consciously and freely transform the world in order to meet our needs – that is, ‘work’).


  6. Liam says:

    One of the problems is the separation of CMAL, who own the ports and ferries, and CalMac, who run them – needless bureaucracy designed to appease the fortunately now scrapped (after union pressure) private tendering process.

    Strange not to mention the RMT though who are very active within CalMac. It was, again, them who forced Serco and their subcontractor Seatruck to start paying the *minimum wage* on their Northern Isles freight routes (a Transport Scotland funded service). The Irish Sea routes are another case in point.

    That’s the danger of breaking up CalMac’s monopoly and collective agreements – a race to the bottom on T&Cs for staff, particularly as most routes are not profitable. The idea this would lead to a better service for islanders is a stretch…

    Shipping is global and notoriously bad for working practices. CalMac recruit locally and invest a lot in skills, training and apprenticeships in Scotland – something that you simply do not see with the various private operators. This is something that the likes of Roy Pederson & the self-appointed island ferry committees, typically skewed towards business/haulage interests, often miss or ignore.

    1. Mons Meg says:

      ‘The idea this would lead to a better service for islanders is a stretch…’

      And if, rather than the state or any other monopoly, the islanders themselves operated or commissioned their own ferry services…?

    2. J Galt says:

      I’d rather they were “skewed towards business/haulage interests” rather than towards the interests of the RMT and an Empire Building bureaucracy that often have nothing but contempt for the communities they are supposed to be serving.

  7. Houssman says:

    I’m not suggesting it’s any kind of silver bullet – as you make clear, there are lots of considerations here – but I’m curious to know what sort of input councils in Eilean Siar, Highland and Argyll & Bute have in all this. In Shetland, we have a Council-run External Transport Forum, at which the managers of NorthLink and Loganair appear to provide updates, set out future plans and answer questions. These sessions are held in public and with press present. It certainly doesn’t solve everything – we’re having to push hard at the Scottish Government’s door on the need to increase freight capacity – but at least the operators are held to account and – whatever else changes – it’s a vehicle I think we’d always want to have.

    Is there any equivalent in the west?

  8. Geoff Allibone says:

    Public transport has been a mess since owning cars became so affordable. Trains and buses are not as convenient.

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