Our Thinking Is Lost At Sea

A Multipurpose RoRo and Container Ship

Forgetting Brexit and Independence for the moment, Scotland has been severely let down by everyone when it comes to getting the goods and produce we make out the country. Yes there is Grangemouth with is container feeder services, and to a much lesser extent Greenock. Then there is Aberdeen with its weekly service to Norway and an occasional service to West Africa based on whatever parcel of oil and gas equipment pays for the inducement and the line then tries to pick up additional bookings on the back. There are shipments of aggregates, grains, timber etc that move in coastal sized vessels to and from EU and Baltic states. On top of these there are what we would call project shipments. These are larger shipments which require a vessel to call directly with a sole shipment. This can be offshore wind components, a large transformer several thousand tonnes of pipes etc. I think you get the idea though. Other than the weekly feeder connections for containers our connection to the EU and outside world is pretty sporadic.

Over the years I have heard and read so much misguided ideas and proposals that seem to catch everyone’s imagination but the fail to gather traction because, well they are not really based on the foundation of reality.

Right, before we go any further let’s take stock of what we are.

Scotland is a small resource rich, highly productive nation. We export Whisky, Plastics, Agricultural produce, Oil & Gas equipment, Pharmaceuticals etc. And yes we could do a lot more, but that’s up to us!

Now for the most important part. Look at where we are. Where we are dictates our costs to getting our produce (whatever it is) to market. This is something beyond our control, we can’t physically turn the British isles upside down (I wish as it would make logistics post independence and Brexit so much easier) to locate Scotland closer to Europe. Because of our location is on an island on the periphery of the European continent getting there from the top end of that island requires a longer and thus more expensive journey to market.

To make our thinking easier we should start by thinking about our markets as two separate entities. Europe and Deep Sea. Deep Sea is essentially the rest of the world, these are destinations that are serviced by the major container carriers who operate from the major ports such as Rotterdam, Antwerp, Felixstowe etc.

Scotland due to our geographical location and the size of our market can do nothing other than seek to find the best method to connect to a hub port. We have all heard those who propose that we turn Hunterston into a massive container port but given that it’s on the completely wrong side of the country, which would involve any carrier taking a 2 day detour to get there only to take another 3 days to get back to Antwerp or Rotterdam. It’s commercially unviable especially when you consider the costs to then on forward those containers to their final destinations as only a small percentage would end up in Scotland.

I hope that now we all understand Scotland’s position. We are about 390 nautical miles from the nearest hub port and entrance to Europe. This is the fact! Now how do we work with this to service our exporters and importers. Currently most of our European freight moves by road via Hull or Dover to Europe as there is no direct service ex Scotland. A considerable, but not all of our deep sea (and some European) exports move by containers from Grangemouth and Greenock. The rest by truck and rail to Felixstowe and Southampton and to a lesser extent Tilbury and Liverpool.

So what are our options. Well…

Option 1. We can do nothing and continue as we are, we can see our fish and agricultural exports perish on a trailer sitting in a Kent lorry park waiting on a ferry slot and continue using feeder connections for containers

Option 2. We could do what every Scottish Government has done. Hope that some ferry operator will magically decide to start a service. Yes, we have seen them come and go. Why because a traditional Ferry model doesn’t work for Scotland. The occasional punter using the ferry there and back for his caravan holiday to a naturist resort in Belgium doesn’t pay. And unless you can make the costs cheaper for trailer operators they won’t use it.

Option 3. We start our own. Yip. If we want Scottish exporters to not only continue at the level we have now but grow there is only one way to do it. We need to start our own service, not wait on a ferry company to say “I know if failed last time but now Scotland’s exports are under threat let’s try and run a ferry service again”. It’s not going to happen.

Do we all agree on option 3? Good. How do we do it.

The simple answer is this (and the Scottish government aren’t interested because there is no will to make it happen.. yet)!

Scotland already has its own ferry company 100% owned by the Scottish ministers. CalMac. Now to the Scottish Government CalMac is the lifeline to the isles and that is true. I’m not advocating that we put CalMac at risk. I’m arguing that we should use that as a vehicle for a service that will not only see benefits to Scottish exporters and their employees but also the Scottish people as a % of the profits will be paid back to the Government.

How to use CalMac without risk. Well the basic principle is that the Scottish Government creates a subsidiary company or CalMac does let’s call it EuroCal. EuroCal then seeks investors to fund the trading of the company to start with. With CalMac you already have a ferry company with a booking system and infrastructure in place. The company can then charter a vessel for a year or two while the interesting part happens.

Oooh.. the interesting part. Well I suppose the interesting part is actually what will make the service viable. As we have seen the traditional ferry model doesn’t work for Scotland. We can change geography to make it so. What we need is a service based on a multipurpose vessel capable of taking RoRo, containers and some passengers. The vessel(s) need to be fast and flexible with a capacity that makes the cost competitive against other traditional routes to market. In addition if we put in the design features it will be able to handle high and heavy cargoes that traditionally move via charter vessels.

So while we establish the service we can get on with the building of a ferry or two. Whether here or abroad that’s down to costs and abilities (I’m not entering a discussion about a Scottish yard. But a well designed vessel shouldn’t be out with our manufacturing capabilities. Whether the yard was physically capable due to size. Only the final design would dictate)

So we know what we need, where from and too. The answer is a no brainer. Rosyth to Rotterdam. I know people will say but Aberdeen or Inverness but let’s be 100% logical here. Rosyth is almost slap bang in the centre of the industrial belt. it’s has great motorway connections and already has RoRo facilities and plenty of space for receiving Containers and project cargoes. The destination has to be Rotterdam. It’s the major hub for deep sea carriers and has great road connections to central and Southern Europe.

This is a simplified version of the plan. There are details that need to be refined and the vessel needs to be built to operate at a cost that makes the service viable. The whole package needs to be pulled together so it’s ready to be presented to investors. I know the industry and there are a lot of chancers. Some will be looking at this and thinking that they can make a quick buck then pull out.

Personally I want to see Scotland flourish, I want to see our international trade grow and the jobs that come from that trade prosper our country and its people. Only we can do this and to make a success we need a service that fits our country not force a country to fit a service.

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