Delivering CalMac Services

‘Our service is at full stretch and less able to respond to disruption’: addressing a packed CRSC audience, CalMac Operations Director Robert Morrison spoke with appealing candour about the challenges of running a complex network of ferry services

The guest speaker at CRSC’s meeting on Wednesday 8 January 2020 turned the tables on the 80-odd souls who braved the monsoon conditions to hear his much anticipated talk. Normally it is those in our audience who speak of ships and ferries with a passion and fondness bordering on the emotional, but Robert Morrison, Operations Director of CalMac Ferries Ltd, demonstrated that even the professionals can display heaps of enthusiasm for their vessels. Here is a personal account of his presentation from Stuart Craig.

One of the assets that CRSC, and by definition its members, have built up is the ability to attract prominent speakers from shipping companies to entertain us on nights such as this. Mr Morrison — let’s call him Robert, for he’s really one of us – was a big catch, and he rewarded us with a highly detailed account of the inner workings of CalMac: the kind of issues the company faces day-to-day, the challenges posed by an ageing fleet, the vagaries of the Scottish weather (not just in winter) and the advancements the company has attained over the last few years.

Memories of a Lochaber childhood: Robert Morrison said one of the scenes he will never forget is King George V at Fort William

Robert explained all of these in a clear and concise manner, but he also cited areas where the company could have done better, explaining each with laudable candour. This was evident from his opening words, following a week of horrendous weather on the west coast and the subsequent ferry cancellations: “This is not the best week to be standing here giving this talk about ferry operations!”

Born in Oban, Robert spent his youth in Lochaber, as was clear from his accent — I’ve never heard ‘Lochboisdale’ pronounced this way before. Formerly a BT executive, he joined CalMac  in 2013, and in his relatively short time with the company he has risen from Area Manager Outer Isles to Operations Director.

During his hour-long presentation he referred to “the family that is MacBraynes” and shared with us a ‘Rabbie Burns-ism’ — that “working for CalMac you have to see yourself through the eyes of those you serve.”

Prominent in his address was the cascade of vessels in 2016 that saw Isle of Lewis move to the Barra route, Coruisk assume the duties of second Mull vessel, Lord of the Isles head back to Mallaig and Clansman become dedicated Coll/Tiree boat.

This brought considerable improvement to services, but Robert admitted that not all worked out perfectly: he cited the failure to fully appreciate the tidal conditions at Mallaig and Armadale, and hesitation in bringing Loch Fyne onto that route.

That the CalMac fleet is ageing was already well understood by the audience. In 1990 the average age of the fleet was 12. By 2018 it was 21.

As part of the 2016 cascade of vessels throughout the network, Lord of the Isles returned to Mallaig

“Our service is at full stretch and less able to respond to disruption,” Robert explained. Of course, the audience also recognised that the delay in building the two ships at Port Glasgow hasn’t helped, and is outwith CalMac’s direct control.

Understandably, Robert wanted to highlight the company’s progress during his tenure. There were 23 apprenticeships during 2017, all of whom secured permanent posts. More sailings are now being given than ever before — 144,932 in 2018 – which has to be taken into account when analysing the number of cancellations. Over the last 10 years, sailings between Ardrossan and Brodick have risen 12% and those on the Uig triangle by 41%.

Another innovation is the recently assembled Integrated Operations Control Centre, which now gives clearer and more coordinated information on cancellations.

Robert was also keen to alert us to a new ticketing service that should be rolled out next year. Ar Turas (Gaelic for ‘our journey’) will allow enhanced vehicle capacity management, and integration with other ticketing modes.

Some of the other numbers that Robert gave us had me furiously scribbling in my notepad. Here is a sample from the 2017-18 winter overhaul pattern:

Robert Morrison: ‘I love working for CalMac’

33 vessels were upgraded.

7 docks were used.

12,000 metres of cable were replaced

22,000 litres of paint applied

870 seats were replaced

130 new flags were unfurled.

Having completed his PowerPoint presentation, Robert indulged us with a Q & A session, during which a dozen queries were politely fired in his direction.

These ranged from “Which vessel will serve Campbeltown when Glen Sannox eventually comes into service?” (Robert thinks it may be Caledonian Isles), to “What will be the first of the older vessels to be scrapped? Please don’t say Hebridean Isles!” (Robert said it was too early to say).

All in all, we were handsomely entertained and enlightened. CRSC is grateful to Robert for giving so generously of his time. It was heartening to find our audience being trusted with so much ‘inside’ knowledge about the pros and cons of running a complex network.

Before the meeting I told a friend that Robert Morrison actually had the job I wanted: to be in charge of all those ships, big and small, and to be able to send them to wherever in the network they were needed. It sounded like the dream job for a steamer nutter such as me. Having now listened to the responsibility and issues that Robert faces every day, I’m not so sure. I think I’ll just stick to moving my model trains about!

Graph of recent ferry cancellations across major CalMac routes

The average age of the CalMac fleet rose from 12 in 1990 to 21 in 2018. Ship procurement is the responsibility of CMAL

A new CalMac ticketing service is being put together, to be marketed under the title ‘ar turas’, Gaelic for ‘our journey’. Its headline photo, taken from the ground behind the pier at Coll, shows Clansman heading for Tiree

A summary of some of the broader challenges facing CalMac as it enters the 2020s

‘We’ll have to do our best with what we’ve got’: the new Glen Sannox awaiting completion at Port Glasgow

After his talk Robert Morrison (second from left) chatted to Club member Cameron Wilson (left), former CalMac executive Bill Main (second from right) and Captain Guy Robertson (right), master of MV Finlaggan

Published on 12 January 2020