How CalMac traffic figures tracked the course of Covid

‘Lies, damned lies, and statistics’: whether or not it was the 19th century British politician Benjamin Disraeli who coined this phrase to describe the persuasive power of numbers, CalMac’s traffic figures for 2020 do not provide a complete picture of the impact of the pandemic. How is it, for example, that Arran suffered a drop in passenger figures of more than 60%, but the equivalent figures for Colonsay and Lismore were only in the mid 30s?

To meet demands for transparency, CalMac publishes a barrage of statistics on its website. Some of these are revealing, some bamboozling: it is left to the reader to make sense of them. After comparing traffic figures for before and after the start of the pandemic, CRSC’s Graeme Hogg says he understands better how it affected some routes and types of traffic more than others. He reckons, nevertheless, that the official statistics provide only a partial picture of Covid’s impact on ferry services, and it would be difficult to extrapolate evidence of a ‘substantial’ deterioration in CalMac’s performance.

Anyone who has strayed beyond the Service Status pages on the CalMac website, writes Graeme Hogg, may have come across the company’s Carrying Statistics. These are tucked away in the Corporate CalMac section, the link to which is to be found at the bottom of the Home Page.

There is a vast wealth of numbers to be found there, currently covering the period 2007-2020. The information is broken down in enormous detail, covering numbers carried by route for passengers, cars, coaches and commercial vehicles. Annual figures are presented for each category, but it is also possible to drill down further to reveal figures by month under all these headings.

Given the vast upheaval caused to the lives of everyone by the Covid-19 pandemic since early in 2020, it seems like a good idea to look at its effects on CalMac’s business, at least during that year. Will the figures recorded in the Carrying Statistics simply reinforce what we think we know about the impact of the pandemic, or will it reveal other insights?

To make this assessment, three years will be considered, 2018, 2019 and 2020. The comparison of the first two years will show the recent trends of CalMac’s activities in normal times, while comparing 2019 and 2020 will illustrate the impact of the pandemic. There are so many statistics that it would be easy to become bogged down in the numbers and create a confusing, not to say boring, analysis. To avoid this, the focus will be on some key figures, and conclusions will be drawn from them.


The figures overall are as follows:

 2019    Increase/(decrease) from 2018   % Increase/(decrease)
Passengers  5,686,042    144,288    2.60
Cars  1,494,458    64,523    4.51
Coaches  11,019    173    1.60
Commercial vehicles  80,193    (93)    (0.12)

Cars include smaller vans and all motor homes. Larger vans will be classed as commercial vehicles.

The overall picture is of modest growth, other than for commercial vehicles where numbers were static. While these figures reflect the calendar years, CalMac’s annual reports are drawn up to 31 March each year. Therefore, they do not provide a direct company commentary on the periods under review, and, in any case, there is minimal comment on the Carrying Statistics, other than to suggest that the bulk of the increase in passenger numbers arose in the summer months. There were no changes to the fleet or to routes between the two years which might have distorted the picture. Argyll Ferries, which had been the operator on the Gourock-Dunoon passenger service, handed over to CalMac on 21 January 2019, but the full year’s carryings are reflected in both years.

The frequent deployment of Isle of Arran away from the Clyde in 2018 explains why, with her increased presence there in 2019, passenger figures for Ardrossan-Campbeltown showed such an increase

Looking at individual routes and carrying categories, there are relatively few areas worthy of comment. On the Clyde, the impression is one of stagnation on the main routes. However, on Gourock-Dunoon, passenger numbers rose by 11,100 or 3.86%, contrary to the impression of steady decline on the route. Lochranza-Claonaig showed good growth in passenger and car traffic of 3,200 (4.51%) passengers and 2,000 (7.71%) cars, a pattern repeated at Tarbert-Portavadie (7,200 (8.13%) passengers and 1,400 (4.99%) cars). Both routes showed a loss in coach traffic and Lochranza-Claonaig also saw a big drop in its already modest commercial vehicle numbers.

The other big change on the Clyde was the big increase in passenger and car numbers of 2,700 (30.59%) and 700 (29.58%) on the Ardrossan-Campbeltown route, which, as pointed out in Review 2019, could be attributed to the frequent redeployment elsewhere of Isle of Arran in 2018.

Turning to the Western Isles, two areas stand out. Services to Lochboisdale showed a distinct shift, with an increase in passenger and car figures from Mallaig of 8,000 (38.07%) and 3,200 (38.46%) respectively offset by a drop in loadings out of Oban. Direct comparison is not straightforward as the Oban figures are tied in with services to Coll, Tiree and Castlebay, but there was a fall in the equivalent Oban figures. This will be due primarily to a high number of cancellations of Lord of the Isles’ sailings on the Mallaig – Lochboisdale service in 2018. Conversely, 100 (22.3%) fewer commercial vehicles were carried between Mallaig and Lochboisdale, which is hard to explain. Traffic between Oban and Colonsay showed a decline of 1,300 (9.75%) passengers and 100 (2.05%) cars, offset only slightly by an increase in traffic on the Kennacraig-Islay/Colonsay/Oban route, although it is impossible to assess whether this benefitted Colonsay or Islay. This was the only route on the network showing a decline, although numbers to Lismore were at a virtual standstill. Two other routes showing well above average growth for passengers and cars were Mallaig-Armadale and Tobermory-Kilchoan, driven substantially by an upsurge in tourist traffic on Skye and Mull.

Such a relatively unexciting picture is perhaps not surprising, given the absence of fleet development, since the new Glen Sannox and Hull 802 were already overdue for delivery, and the operation of RET on all routes apart from Gourock-Dunoon has resulted in considerable stretch on many of the popular routes in summer.


The figures overall are as follows:

 2020    Decrease from 2019   % Decrease
Passengers  2,354,370       3,387,431    59.00
Cars  803,554       692,495    46.29
Coaches  1,604       9,415    85.44
Commercial vehicles  68,397       11,796    14.71

The reductions across all categories are substantial, although much less marked for commercial vehicles. Clearly, the pandemic had a major impact, but it was not the only factor worthy of consideration. According to CalMac’s Annual Report to 31 March 2020, where only the last two weeks of the year were Covid-affected, “the biggest factor in the drop was the weather. Severe and persistent storms across January and February saw almost 15% of sailings cancelled.” The report goes on to record that scheduled sailings in the year had dropped by some 1,200 to 162,916 as a result of some timetable changes, the Covid crisis and the bad weather. 

Lord of the Isles heading out from Oban Bay into the Firth of Lorn: during lockdown passenger numbers were kept to about 30% of normal capacity and on-board facilities were curtailed

CRSC’s own Scottish Ferry Newsletters for this January-February period noted either numerous or occasional weather disruptions on virtually every route. The carrying statistics across the network show reductions in traffic volumes of 19.29% for passengers, 13.25% for cars and 3.62% for commercial vehicles, although coach traffic increased by 5.29%. Therefore, the weather impact was modest when compared with the overall drop in traffic volumes, particularly when it is considered that only about 15% of the annual total was carried over these two months. Thus, it is clear that the pandemic was the principal factor contributing to the large reductions in traffic.

The first lockdown was declared on 23 March 2020, although many had modified their behaviour before then in the face of the worsening situation. CalMac cancelled its Summer Timetable from Friday 27 March and introduced an Essential Lifeline Timetable (EFT) from that date.

This was subject to several extensions until the easing of lockdown restrictions led on Wednesday 1 July to the introduction of a temporary Summer Timetable, still falling well short of normal, followed by some increased services from 15 July. This continued through to the beginning of the Winter Timetable, which was more along normal lines.

Frequency of service was only one aspect of the impact of the pandemic. The imposition of social distancing and travel restrictions generally meant that the capacity on all ships was severely reduced, but it was still more than adequate to deal with the numbers permitted to travel, especially during the EFT period. Passenger numbers were limited to about 30% of normal capacity and on-board facilities were curtailed.

In May 2020 CalMac Operations Director Robert Morrison echoed a Scottish Government directive that travel to the islands was not open for recreational purposes

The Scottish Government’s message was reinforced in late May by a CalMac press release from Robert Morrison, Director of Operations, which read: “As the First Minister made very clear yesterday, travel to the islands continues to be for essential reasons only, they are not open for recreational purposes and people boarding for a day trip will be turned away. Likewise, people with island second homes should not be travelling and we would ask them to be responsible before trying to board. The good weather may tempt people to get out and about, but I would urge everyone to continue to follow government guidelines and stay away from the islands”

It has to be remembered that at this time, as for much of the pandemic, infection rates on the islands, especially in the Western Isles, were very low when compared with those on most of the mainland. This led to two competing arguments.

On the one hand, the restrictions were helping limit the potential spread of infection to the island communities while on the other, great damage was being done to many island businesses dependent on what is a relatively short tourist season.

The introduction of the EFT led to several vessels being laid up as most two ship rosters were reduced to single ship operation. Specifically, Ali Cat, Argyle, Coruisk, Hebridean Isles, Isle of Arran, Isle of Cumbrae, Loch Fyne and Loch Riddon, all of which would normally have been undertaking rostered sailings, were laid up and the Tarbert-Portavadie service, which is not a lifeline service, was withdrawn. With the introduction of the modified summer timetable in July, all these vessels re-entered service to some extent, although the Ardrossan-Campbeltown service was not operated by Isle of Arran and it was mid month before Isle of Cumbrae reopened the Tarbert-Portavadie service. Across the network, timetables were modified in light of experience in an effort to optimise services. In some cases, such as Wemyss Bay-Rothesay and Mallaig-Armadale, car drivers and passengers were told to remain in their vehicles on passage, which required MCA dispensations on Argyle, Bute and Coruisk on Oban-Craignure.

It was reported that passenger and vehicle numbers were down 95% in the April-June period as people largely followed the guidelines, which were reinforced by CalMac staff monitoring those seeking to travel and turning away those without an essential purpose. This largely is borne out when the comparative figures for May 2019 and 2020 are reviewed.

 2020    Decrease from 2019   % Decrease
Passengers  28,144    622,504   95.67
Cars  15,305    151,199   90.81
Coaches  68    1,450   95.31
Commercial vehicles  3,687    4,119   52.77

Following the relaxation of lockdown restrictions and the introduction of an expanded timetable, there was a significant upsurge in the numbers wanting to travel, including leisure travellers, but the numbers allowed to travel remained low because of continuing restrictions on capacity and on-board service.

Demand was such that the CalMac booking website crashed for a short period in early July and call handlers had to deal with lengthy queues of people anxious to book tickets.

This led to demands from islanders that space be reserved on all crossings for them, so that mainland visits for medical appointments and other reasons could be made. CalMac confirmed that space would always be found for emergency travel, as in the past, but this was not considered sufficient: a Harris resident started an online petition to secure priority for islanders who were considered to be a primary focus of lifeline services.

The second expansion of services in mid July helped ease this situation on many routes, but a foolproof solution was not found and there continued to be reports of missed appointments and inability to travel from the islands. Indeed, such concerns arise from time to time on busier routes even in times of no restrictions.

By August, the peak month for CalMac, the position had improved, in spite of the continuing restrictions, as the comparative figures show.

 2020    Decrease from 2019   % Decrease
Passengers  500,588    313,250   38.49
Cars  150,507    39,584   20.82
Coaches  146    1,510   91.18
Commercial vehicles  6,455    737   10.25

Although restrictions on certain aspects of life were imposed in subsequent months, a second lockdown did not come into force until 26 December. The carrying statistics for November reveal a similar fall in passenger numbers, a 9% larger decrease in car numbers but a smaller decrease in coach and commercial vehicle numbers, by 29% and 7% respectively.

All these comparative figures reveal some common features. The decline in passenger numbers is consistently at a higher percentage than that for cars. The most significant percentage fall throughout was for coaches, while that for commercials was significantly lower than for the other categories. 

Finlaggan at Port Ellen: ‘The limited fall in commercial vehicle traffic is understandable as the indigenous population of the islands, even if limited in travel opportunities and deprived of much of their tourist trade, still required the essentials of living, and fresh foodstuffs had to be delivered on a regular basis’

Day trip traffic was a specific target of the restrictions, which can explain, partly, why the passenger numbers fell so much. The six most popular routes for day trips are Gourock-Dunoon, Wemyss Bay-Rothesay, Largs-Cumbrae Slip, Ardrossan-Brodick, Oban-Craignure and Mallaig-Armadale. The percentage drop in passenger numbers on these routes in August was higher than the network figure, apart from Largs-Cumbrae Slip, where it was only 20.82% and Wemyss Bay-Rothesay, where it was 33.67%. These latter figures may be explained by the fact that both routes are served by relatively high frequency services, where it would be possible to spread the passengers over more sailings such that the restrictions on numbers had less of an impact. The Gourock-Dunoon service has become an outlier in this regard as the resort has become less popular with day trippers, arguably, at least in part, because of the downgrading of the ferry service since the withdrawal of the ‘streakers’.

The virtual collapse of coach traffic reflects the trend across the tourist industry until 2021. The necessary imposition of social distancing rendered coach trips andholidays non-viable. The limited fall in commercial vehicle traffic is understandable as the indigenous population of the islands, even if limited in travel opportunities and deprived of much of their tourist trade, still required to be supplied with the essentials of living and fresh foodstuffs, in particular, would need to be delivered on a regular basis. Equally, seafood shipments from Barra and whisky shipments from Islay and elsewhere had to continue on a timeous basis, even if volumes may have reduced.

Turning to the figures for individual routes not discussed already, the only routes to be abandoned completely in 2020 were Ardrossan-Campbeltown and Oban-Coll/Tiree/Castlebay, which are primarily tourist routes. Those suffering the smallest drop in traffic overall were Oban-Colonsay, Oban-Lismore and Tayinloan-Gigha. There is no obvious explanation for this, but the fact that these islands are less self-contained than the larger islands, and are less of a draw for day trips, may account for the limited impact. A similar situation might be anticipated on the Small Isles service (Mallaig-Eigg/Muck/Rum/Canna), and that was certainly the case for cars and commercial vehicles, but the drop in passenger numbers was among the highest across the network, reflecting the popularity of day trips on this route in normal circumstances.

The reduced service levels and number of vessels laid up temporarily, particularly during the EFT period, might have been expected to benefit CalMac, first, by reducing the demands on the ageing fleet it is required to operate, and second, by building in some resilience by having spare vessels, even among major units of the fleet.

A BBC report of 28 October 2021 quoted figures for cancelled sailings, showing that in 2019 there were 5,652 cancellations, whereas in 2020 the number increased to 7,434. Do these statistics prove a significant deterioration in CalMac’s performance?

An article posted on 28 October on the BBC News website cast doubt on this situation. While the article led with a discussion of the difficulties faced by Mull residents owing to capacity constraints on the ferry service, particularly when one or other of the regular ferries was unavailable, it went on to review information received from CalMac under Freedom of Information legislation on cancellations since 2019. The published figures for cancelled sailings showed that in 2019 there were 5,652 cancelled sailings, whereas in 2020 the number increased to 7,434. Based on these figures, performance deteriorated substantially. However, these figures cannot be viewed in isolation.

The information was set out in a spreadsheet showing the network-wide monthly totals for scheduled sailings, operated sailings, additional sailings and cancelled sailings. The figures noted above are the scheduled sailings not carried out and take no account of additional sailings. Those not carried out will have been for a variety of reasons including weather, breakdown, damage to ships or berths or, in 2020 especially, medical reasons, such as a Norovirus incident or Covid isolation requirements. There is no analysis of these possible causes in the statistics. Equally, the additional sailings will have been for a variety of reasons, including traffic requirements and to compensate for any of the above reasons for cancellation, but again no analysis is provided. There will have been some degree of correlation between the cancelled sailings and the additional sailings. The figures above assume no correlation. If the additional sailings correlated 100% to the cancellations, the figures for the two years would be 272 cancellations in 2019 and 2,526 in 2020. The correlation will not be 100%, but will certainly be more than 0%: therefore the published figures exaggerate the situation. It is still clear that, in spite of the increased resilience available, 2020 performance was poorer than 2019. It was noted in the article that this trend has continued into 2021, as has been well publicised this year.

Covid has had at least as much of an impact on CalMac’s services as on most other activities. The effect of this on the economic prosperity of the communities it serves has been profound, and recovery through 2021 will have been more problematic than for mainland communities, owing to the continuing capacity restrictions in the early part of the year and the much publicised trials and tribulations of maintaining services with overstretched and, in some cases, virtually life-expired vessels. The ethos of those who operate the vessels day-to-day has changed little, and the intention remains to serve the public as well as is possible.

Nevertheless, until greater capacity and resilience can be built into CalMac’s operations, the prosperity and quality of life of islanders will continue to suffer, irrespective of the pandemic.

Graeme Hogg is a former Partner of one of the ‘Big Four’ accounting firms, and is a Past President of CRSC.

Annual Carrying Statistics

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How CalMac crews coped with Covid

Published on 9 November 2021