Lunch with Robbie Drummond: vision and hope

Robbie Drummond’s fluent, informative and illuminating presentation held his audience’s attention for the best part of an hour. Having trained as an accountant with KPMG, he joined CalMac as finance director 11 years ago and has been chief executive for the past two years

There was an unmistakable buzz surrounding CRSC’s lunch excursion to Rothesay on Saturday 4 November. It is not often that an enthusiast organisation attracts the top man in the west of Scotland ferry network as guest speaker — and Robbie Drummond, CalMac’s managing director, did more than just speak. He devoted a precious Saturday to the dubious pleasure of accompanying 70 nutters on a crossing to Bute, where he and a team of four senior CalMac managers mingled with us over soup and sandwiches, followed by an hour-long PowerPoint presentation. It was both informative and illuminating, writes Andrew Clark.

It was not what we expected. Robbie Drummond, embattled boss of what every newspaper portrays as a struggling ferry company, is surely supposed to be a manager on the defensive, fielding an endless barrage of brickbats about interrupted services and failing ships. Instead, the man in front of us, a spry 54-year old, spoke confidently and coherently about CalMac’s long-term strategy, about the quality and responsiveness of his staff, about the size of investment going into fleet renewal, about the need for a clear purpose, community-driven, “to navigate the waters, ensuring that life thrives — wherever we are.”

All set for Rothesay: CalMac chief executive Robbie Drummond (second left) departs Wemyss Bay on 4 November with CRSC president Robin Copland, membership secretary Stuart Craig and longstanding member Ken Mills. Click on image to enlarge

The size of the task is clear: CalMac is responsible for 500 sailings a day (a total of 110,000 sailings in summer, 62,000 in winter), of which one in every 100 is impacted by technical failure, and one in 200 by weather. “That’s good compared to other transport organisations,” he said. While acknowledging a dip in customer satisfaction earlier this year, he noted that in the past few months it had gone up again, apparently reaching 90% last month.

Clearly relishing the informality of the occasion and the goodwill of his audience, Mr Drummond did not downplay the difficulties and failings of recent years. He said that, due to an historic failure to invest in new tonnage, CalMac was being impeded by the age of its fleet and a lack of spare tonnage.

“A third of our vessels are obsolete. No other transport organisation deploys all its assets all the time [to the extent CalMac does], summer and winter. When we have a disruption, we have nowhere to put people, because the next sailing is already full and the next day’s sailings are full. RET [Road Equivalent Tariff, the Scottish Government scheme that slashed the cost of travel to the islands] increased traffic by 30% but our [ageing] ships are now more than six years older [than when RET was rolled out]. The whole system is cranked up so tightly.”

An additional headache is the lack of standardisation (multifarious engine marques, propulsion systems, ramp alignments), reducing flexibility and obliging the company to spend record sums on maintenance — spare parts being increasingly difficult to find. The 2017 overhaul schedule cost £20m. This year’s is £45m. “We’re running around trying to get European yards and suppliers to source obsolete parts. It’s getting to a level that is almost unsustainable.” Other problems are related to the fact that “many of our harbours are based on 1950s fishing ports that have been extended.”

But, he added, there is hope on the horizon. The Scottish Government has committed £700m towards the renewal of fleet and ports — the first sign of which will be the six large ferries under construction (four of near-identical design from Turkey) and up to 12 smaller vessels, due to be rolled out over the next two to eight years. What CalMac has been trying to impress on Transport Scotland, he said, is the need for “a longer-term strategy. Where is the next investment after that going to be? What is going to replace Argyle and Bute [already nearing 20 years old]? There has been no 30-to-40-year view. Most fleets sell [their vessels] after 15-20 years — or upgrade them, giving them big mid life extensions. Clansman is on the cusp of being too old. At the moment, there is no space in the timetable for major refits.”

CRSC members and guests enjoyed a sociable lunch at the Victoria Hotel on the seafront at Rothesay. Click on image to enlarge

Mr Drummond shared part of the presentation with Alex Cross, CalMac’s head of technical authority, who said the four large Turkish-built ferries (450 passengers, 100 cars) — powered by diesel-electric and propelled by huge Voith-Schneider units — had been designed with a view to increasing technical resilience (no gearboxes, no shafts), reducing windage and improving stability through deeper drafts (while respecting the constraints of west of Scotland harbours).

Isle of Islay, the first of the Turkish ferries, is to be launched in January 2024, with completion due next October.

Her sister, Loch Indaal, should be completed in February 2025 — in both cases, followed by delivery from the east Mediterranean and trials in Scottish waters.

We heard that the Small Vessel Replacement Programme (SVRP) will be introduced in two phases and follow two different sizes.

These ferries — mostly replacements for the ‘Loch’ class — will be 100% powered by batteries (with backup diesel generator for longer voyages for overhaul), which will have five times the capacity of the three Ferguson-built ‘hybrid’ ferries introduced a decade ago. This was “a leading example of positive action towards achieving net zero emissions: five megawatt batteries will [be enough to] cover all routes on all operating days throughout the year.”

Mr Cross spoke of the long-term challenges of pursuing the Scottish Government’s zero-emissions strategy, citing a ‘chicken-and-egg’ situation: you need the right shore infrastructure before you build the ferries, yet many authorities will be “reluctant to put methanol into a port until a vessel is there to use it. The technology is not even there yet. There is no clear answer to how to drive a ship without emissions. Unfortunately [for policymakers], diesel is very good [as a maritime fuel], whereas other energy sources [biofuels, nuclear, hydrogen etc] are complicated and difficult to use.”

One of the PowerPoint illustrations explained by Alex Cross

Other topics? Robbie Drummond acknowledged the problems thrown up by CalMac’s new ticketing system: “We’ll improve it. We’ll remain steadfast in our commitment to continuous improvement and innovation.”

On the question of why the more expensive Voith-Schneider propulsion design had been chosen over Schottel or more traditional systems, he said it was ultimately CMAL’s choice, but that the manoeuvrability and resilience afforded by Voith ultimately offset other considerations.

Does CalMac have a settled opinion about catamarans? The success of the chartered Pentland Ferries catamaran MV Alfred on the Arran service has made this a hot topic. “We’re open to [catamarans] for Arran, Bute, Mull, Mallaig — routes requiring a midsize vessel class — but they have to be workable at the ports: moving everything over to catamarans would have implications for infrastructure. Monohulls are better in more challenging weather. We will work with all parties for the best solution for Scottish ferries.”

After a concise question-and-answer session, CRSC president Robin Copland thanked Robbie Drummond and his team for a presentation characterised by “vision and hope”. Whereupon the assembled company — most of whom had crossed to Rothesay on the 1105 sailing by MV Argyle — made their way to the pier for the 1500 sailing back to Wemyss Bay on MV Coruisk. The consensus among CRSC members heading back to the mainland was that this convivial lunch-excursion may not have gone far geographically, but it had certainly covered a lot of ground.

Thanks to Robbie Drummond and his team for giving us such an illuminating face-to-face encounter; to the staff of the Victoria Hotel for their kind service; and to Robin Copland for chairing the presentation.

Among the CalMac executives accompanying Robbie Drummond on the CRSC lunch excursion were (left to right) head of technical authority Alex Cross, commercial director Diane Burke and director of communications Stewart Maxwell — pictured on MV Argyle on the 1105 crossing to Rothesay

During the presentation, Robbie Drummond (left) focused on the ‘big picture’ while Alex Cross (right) provided much of the technical detail

The CRSC audience listened to the presentation with close concentration. CalMac resilience manager Tommy Gore is on the left foreground

One of the PowerPoint illustrations showed the size and characteristics of the Voith Schneider units destined for the four Turkish-built ferries

The social side of CRSC membership was well to the fore during lunch on 4 November at the Victoria Hotel, Rothesay

Passenger embarkation for the return crossing by MV Coruisk to Wemyss Bay at 1500 was by way of the vehicle ramp


CRSC lunch with Martin Dorchester, CalMac CEO in January 2016

CRSC presentation by CalMac Operations Director Robert Morrison in March 2023

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Published on 6 November 2023