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  Ferries for the Future ?An Analysis by Séamus Ó Drisceoil, Secretary of Cailin Óir Ferry Service of the ‘Small Ferries Project’ published in The Marine Times, November 2009

On 29 September the ‘Small Ferries Strategic Plan’ was launched in Brussels. This is a cooperative venture between Caledonian Maritime Assets Ltd (CMAL), the Department of Rural Development in Northern Ireland ( DRD) and the Department of Community, Rural & Gaeltacht Affairs, Republic of Ireland (DCGA). It is funded by INTERREG to the tune of €230,000. Amongst the various regional and corporate representatives present there seemed to have been only two island residents , both from small islands in the Republic of whom I was one. The aims of the project are laudable, i.e. to develop new models for financing and designing small ro ro ferries in Ireland and Scotland. The ferries to be State owned would be ordered and built in multiples to achieve significant cost savings. This seems very sensible, a CMAL representative explained to me that savings of 25% are achieved when four or more vessels are built together. The first part of the study, a form of needs analysis was carried out by MVA Consultancy. While it has certainly been carried out in a thoroughly professional manner, its nature and quality has been compromised by the unreasonable haste with which it was complied. The closing date for tenders was the 4 June 2009, with the inception meeting on the 16 June and the study had to be completed by the 17 July. Given the scale of the report this was an excruciating tight deadline which must have imposed exceptional pressures on the professionals involved. The study itself refers in a number of instances to this constraint and in particular 2.2.4. The 17July deadline specified for the final report for this project ruled out any significant consultation with residents of the relevant island and peninsular communities. Quite frankly, this is outrageous, it shows contempt by the public service not only for the private sector consultants employed but even more so for the relevant island communities. In general the study seems unduly pessimistic about the future developmental prospects of the Islands. Following the study, two basic design concepts have emerged and the project will now proceed to the design stage. I was happy but not convinced to hear Andrew Flockart , CMAL confirm that these would be “readily and openly available to all”. Given their considerable experience , I was surprised that CMAL would need any outside expertise in designing ferries but it seems that the primary motivation is, as stated quite bluntly by Chairman Grenville Johnston, to find a way of funding the replacement of the companies ageing fleet. If the project unfolds as planned EU/State funding should become available for a cost effective program of small ship building for Scotland and Ireland . It is interesting to see how language and perceptions change with context. I met municipal representatives from Germany with underused local shipyards and this was later put in context by Ronald Vopel, Policy Officer with the European Commission when he spoke of “European ship builders”. The question arises, where do we fit in to all this ?.The stated policy of the DCRGA is against State ownership of vessels so this would require a complete policy reversal. What are the chances of capital funding of this magnitude being made available by the Irish State in the foreseeable future ?. Most informed observers would put it somewhere close to zero. It was good to hear Seamus Mac Giolla Chomhaill of the DCRGA refer to the 2004 Malachy Walsh Report on island ferry services . This is an excellent and thorough report. It should be as it cost €95,000. However I had to pinch myself because it is only a few short weeks since I was in a delegation from Cape Clear Island to Minister, Éamon Ó Cuiv and the Department, who raised this report only to see it cursorily dismissed as a “matter of opinion”. As it goes ‘thuas seal, thíos seal’ but one hopes that having put Malachy Walsh back on its pedestal for our European colleagues the DCRGA will now take the time to study it carefully themselves and especially those parts relating to Cape Clear Island !. The most innovative aspect of the small ferries study relates to low carbon propulsion systems. This was very much put in context by Pelin Zhou of Strathclyde University which showed that bio diesel is the only substitute presently available that fulfills all the necessary performance criteria, as well as pollution control. The only real issue, apart from possible availability is the significantly higher cost of bio diesel which would be reflected in the operating costs of ferries. From my perspective the most outstanding contribution was from Ko Ko Naing, Safety, Environmental and Quality Manager with Stena AB ‘Limiting Emissions and Innovations in Shipping’. He outlined the many innovations by Stena to reduce CO2 emissions by up to 40% and painted a picture of a well managed private corporation responding proactively to market conditions, concerns about climate change, anticipated regulations and safety issues. His description of the first specially designed tankers, the E-Max series to be propelled by LNG was fascinating. Of more interest to those who should have been listening is the picture he painted of the process through which these very considerable savings in CO2 emissions are being achieved. He described a list of 100 actions which increased to 130 following input from ordinary staff members. The company is not waiting to build new vessels to implement these changes, the existing fleet is being upgraded to the fullest extent possible. And so the final contradiction, a private company in pursuit of profit listens to its own staff and customers while public authorities in pursuit of the common good rule out any significant consultation with residents of the relevant island and peninsular communities. My own experience has shown that the circumstances of small island ferry services are far more dynamic and fluid than can be measured and presented in studies of this kind and that much of the information collected should and can be compiled and continuously updated in the ordinary management of the services. In the real world improvements are usually brought about incrementally, small steps at a time as shown by Stena and the ‘big bang’ approach as envisaged by the project is deficient. Nevertheless with innovation, openness, creative thinking and flexibility by the DCRGA it remains possible that some tangible benefits may yet accrue to our offshore islands from their participation in this project. Séamus Ó Drisceoil, Oileán Chléire

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