There are no "suitable vessels" available for Gourock-Dunoon


As I noted in a previous post, the government promised that "suitable second-hand vessels" are available (for Gourock-Dunoon) if the winning bidder needs them, and that this "includes tonnage that can carry vehicles".

CMAL is the state-owned company that has been acting as agents for the government in this matter. It was CMAL who provided the information to the Government that formed the basis of the government's claim that suitable second hand vehicle-carrying vessels were available on the second hand market for Gourock-Dunoon, see my earlier post.

The responses to my first set of FoI questions to CMAL revealed that what was meant by "suitable" was simply that the vessels in question could physically access the shore-based infrastructure at Gourock and Dunoon.

I have now submitted three successive sets of requests under Freedom of Information (FoI) legislation to CMAL to access the information on which the government was making its claims. The responses to the third set together with the other two sets provided to me are now sufficient to make clear that the claim that "suitable" second hand vehicle-carrying vessels are available is simply untrue. I have two main comments.

First,. the Government refused to reveal details of what they meant by "suitable", citing EC procurement rules as their reason for not providing specific detail about the evaluation criteria - a pathetic and untenable excuse. The real motive for not citing what was meant by "suitable" was to protect their own interests, not the public interest. Had it not been for Freedom of Information legislation, we would probably never have found out that truly suitable vessels were not available It is difficult to see the attempt to give the impression that genuinely suitable vessels were really available when they were not as anything other than a deliberate attempt to mislead the public

Second, the Scottish Government's Minister of Transport, Stewart Stevenson, is now set to fulfil the objective Margaret Thatcher's government pursued here in the 1980's. Making the public service passenger-only will mean Western Ferries will be the sole vehicle-carrying ferry service Gourock-Dunoon. Stewart Stevenson and this government will finally implement Thatcher's policies and will succeed where her own ministers failed


I will analyse what information has been made available from CMAL and infer what it means for the kind of vessels that the government deems "suitable" for the route and whether that also coincides with what commercial operators and the public would deem as "suitable" for the route.

The crewing levels are absolutely critical in terms of the economic and commercial viability of this run. The Deloitte Touche estimated that labour amounted to over 61% of direct ship costs for CalMac here, as a comparator labour amounted to 64% of direct ship costs for Western Ferries. So even just one or two extra crew members can make a very significant difference in terms of the cost of operation and whether or not the route is commercially viable for car operation, with or without passenger subsidy.

The Deloitte Touche report made it clear that what would be suitable for Gourock-Dunoon would be two 12-knot 40-car bow-and-stern loading ferries doing a half-hourly service with a crew of 4 or 5. While Deloitte Touche did not identify the passenger capacity for this, it would probably correspond to that of the MV Coruisk which has a capacity of 250 passengers (and which comes closest of any on the present CalMac fleet to having the specifications which would be suitable for the route). These provide the essential economic and technical reference points and benchmarks for what would actually be suitable for Gourock-Dunoon. If the vessels were much slower, they would not be able to maintain a regular half-hourly timetable and compete with Western with a 20 minute journey time. If the vessels were much bigger they would not be economic or commercial to operate

I and others have argued consistently that vessels sufficiently close to the Deloitte Touche specifications to be suitable for Gourock-Dunoon are not generally available on the second hand market. They would have to be built specially and then leased out under tender, just as is done for all the other Calmac routes.

So what vessels has the Government identified as "suitable" for Gourock-Dunoon through CMAL?

The CMAL FoI answers of 8th April confirm there are six vessels, the first five are numbered Vessels 1 to 5, the sixth actually is named, it is the "M/F Vesborg". I asked CMAL for information for each vessel as to (a) whether it is vehicle-carrying or passenger only (b) its passenger capacity (c) its speed (d) the name of the vessel. They provided the following information and added the year of build of each vessel. Their responses were as follows:

Vessel 1 Aluminium Cat Ferry (name unknown)
a) Passenger
b) 300
c) Unknown (high speed)
Vessel 2 Double ended (name unknown)
a) Car/passenger
b) Unknown
c) 15 knots
Vessel 3 Double ended (name unknown)
a) Car/passenger
b) 500
c) 16 knots
Vessel 4 ROPAX (name unknown)
a) Car/passenger
b) 625
c) 27 knots
Vessel 5 Displacement hull (name unknown)
a) Car/passenger
b) 200
c) Unknown

a) Car/passenger
b) 440
c) 11.7 knots

It is not clear why there are so many blanks on the information provided by CMAL. But for a given type of ferry (here car/passengers with bow-and-stern loading facilities) bigger vessels typically are faster, carry more cars and passengers and have more crew. So if we have only partial information on some of the vessels, we can see what the nearest CalMac equivalent is as guide. This is done in the table below, together with the the specifications that Deloitte-Touche said would be suitable for Gourock-Dunoon.

Deloitte-Touche recommended for Gourock-Dunoon
Vessel 2
CalMac equivalent of Vessel 2
Vessel 3


CalMac equivalent of Vessel 3


Vessel 5
CalMac equivalent of Vessel 5
MV Isle of Mull
MV Lord of the Isles
"Loch" class vessels (1)
12 knots
15 knots
15 knots
16 knots
16 knots
9 knots

(1) "Loch" Class vessels here are MVs Loch Dunvegan / Ranza / Riddon / Linnhe / Striven

All data from Caledonian MacBrayne fleet

We can consider each of the six vessels identified by CMAl, though not exactly in numerical order.

Vessel 1: a fast passenger ferry which does not carry cars. Clearly unsuitable. .

Vessel 4: a 27 knot 625 passenger fast ferry which also carries cars. Do not even begin to think about the crewing and fuel cost which would be enormous, even if acceptable on environmental grounds. Clearly unsuitable

Vessel 3; a 16 knot 500 passenger ferry, the closest parallel to this on the CalMac fleet would appear to be LOTI, aka MV Lord of the Isles which also does 16 knots, carries 506 passengers and has 28 crew. Clearly unsuitable.

Vessel 2: does 15 knots, there is no more information available but this would suggest a large and fast class of vessel, the closest CalMac equivalent would be the MV Isle of Mull which like LOTI carries 28 crew. Clearly unsuitable.

Vessel 5: carries only 200 passengers, the CalMac vessels of this capacity are the "Loch" class vessel such as MV Loch Striven which only does 9 knots which would make for a journey time of over half an hour on the Gourock-Dunoon run, would wreck the possibility of a regular half-hourly timetable, and would render them uncompetitive in terms of time of journey with Western. Clearly unsuitable.

Finally M/F Vesborg, the only vessel which we have a name for, and coincidentally the only vessel which on the face of it would seem to come at all close to the Deloitte-Touche specifications for "suitable" vessels for Gourock-Dunoon with a speed of nearly 12 knots.

There is a clue here about why Vesborg is on the market in the line "This vessel was purpose designed ...and reflects specific requirements for the passage to the Island of Samso". The same site gives further clues as to the kind of traffic the vessel was designed for when it says the vessel was awarded the "Sun Deck of the Year" award by "Cruise and Ferry" (I am sure that award would have been proudly displayed for the benefit of commuters as the Vesborg battled its way through November gales on its way Dunoon to Gourock)

We might say that being designed with a sun deck does not matter, any more than it mattered for the MV Ali Cat, and we might overlook the fact that tihe cars are on two decks and that one deck is "hoistable". Yes, we might overlook all that, though it is more difficult to overlook the fact that the Vesborg would be simply uneconomic to run on the Gourock-Dunoon service. It is too big and expensive. The Deloitte Touche specifications were for two 40 car 4-5 crew vessels. Vesborg carries 70 cars, half of them upstairs with the help of a hoist and carries 358/440 passengers with a crew of up to ten. it has a deadweight of 400 tons while the MV Coruisk (the closest to the Deloite Touche specifications on the CalMac network) only has a deadweight of 250 tons. All of these factors could be expected to add significantly to crewing and fuel costs for the Vesborg. compared to what would be economic to run on the route.

You could not expect an operator to run such a vessel and survive on the route, you certainly could not expect an operator to put in a realistic and commercially sensible tender with such a vessel..

Yoiu can get an idea of the size of Vesborg in this video of it arriving at Kolby Kaas on Samso, this is the route it was designed for. The size of it is partcularly evident at the end of the video.

However, if all this were not sufficient to confirm that the vessel would not be "suitable" for Gourock-Dunoon, just return to the statement above that the vessel was "purpose designed ...and reflects specific requirements for the passage to the Island of Samso". There is a second video of Vesborg arriving on Samso. Those of us used to seeing bow-and stern loaders such as those of Western Ferries dock might think there is something unusual about the final few seconds of this video when the Vesborg is about to dock, but it was Captain Sandy Ferguson who realised what it was when he saw the video.

The tidal range in the Kattegat is low to insignificant, in the case of the tidal range at Kolby Kaas on Samso (which is what the Vesborg was designed for) it is only a few inches, or more precisely in metres it is only 0.6m. So it is designed for drive on and off without the use of ramps. Vesborg was not designed for waters like the Clyde and was not designed for ramps because the near absence of tidal range means it does not need them.

Just as the CalMac vessels were specially designed for the shallow waters off the West Coast of Scotland, so the Vesborg was designed for the particular tidal features of the Kattegat and Baltic. The Vesborg physically cannot be used on the CalMac network, never mind Gourock-Dunoon. If you need any more evidence of why you design and build vessels for individual routes or sets of routes, the Vesborg is it.

Two final points. The contract for Gourock-Dunoon will be for only six years under EC rules. Which is of course why CMAL contracts out to build vessels on behalf of the government for all the other CalMac routes, these vessels are then leased out under tender for the routes for which they were designed. You do not build assets with a life of 25 years or so for a six-year contract. The same holds for any ship-based or shore-based modifications that might been needed if any of the vessels were to be considered, whether Vesborg or any other, for the Gourock-Dunoon route in any form. Commercial tenderers, Argyll and Bute Council, and/or CMAL in Gourock will not spend major amounts of private or public money to accommodate just one vessel for one six-year contract. Again (he said wearily) that is why you build the vessel that is suitable on technical, economic and commercial grounds for the route in question to begin with (again, as is the case for the other CalMac routes), then spread the capital costs and lease it out under successive tenders over the 25 or so years of the vessel's life.

The second final point is that the Deloitte Touche report made clear that not one, but two, vehicle-carrying vessels were needed, otherwise there is no chance of an operator beginning to cope with Western's frequency advantage, which has been created by the frequency restriction imposed on the public service since the Eighties, and which is the major course of Western's competitive advantage on this route. This analysis has shown that the government's claim based on CMALs searches that there are "suitable" vehicle-carrying vessels available is false. There is not even one such vessel available, let alone the two that are needed and which Delloite Touche showed would save millions in taxpayers subsidy compared to the passenger-only option. But of course, for that to happen you need the vehicle-carrying vessels available in the first place .

Main Conclusions .

There are no "suitable vehicle-carrying vessels" available for Gourock-Dunoon on the second-hand market and to pretend otherwise is to mislead and misrepresent. If genuinely "suitable" vessels were to be made available, they would have to be built as happens for all the other CalMac routes. This will not now happen. This means that Western Ferries is set to become the sole vehicle-carrying ferry service Gourock-Dunoon by default in June next year. This will remove what remains of competition for this crucal market. Further, the cost to the taxpayer of going passenger-only will mean millions of pounds more subsidy over the life of a typical 6-year public service contract for Gourock-Dunoon than would have been be the case if the Deloitte Touche two vehicle-carrying vessel option had been built and adopted.

Neil Kay, 10th April 2010