Be prepared for some rough seas

SOMETIMES you have to ask how good those in charge actually are at doing their jobs. Politicians and civil servants, I mean. You know, at things like unravelling difficult problems and ensuring successful outcomes for islanders.

(Picture by Peter Frankland, 25513097)
(Picture by Peter Frankland, 25513097)

The reason I ask is because the sale of Condor Ferries is apparently imminent and a backward glance at where we are suggests that the problems faced by the service, the complaints about schedules, timekeeping and reliability plus the collapse of passenger confidence were all readily predictable.

But if you accept that, it also means those problems were avoidable. Which is why we need to question how sensible the States of Jersey and Guernsey were when they allowed Condor to base an island-critical passenger service on a single high-speed craft.

When a passenger service is operated by an investment fund predicated on leveraging annual cost of living increases out of a near monopoly market, dropping the high-speed fleet from two catamarans to a single, larger, trimaran makes perfect sense.

Financial sense, that is. Especially if the new trimaran was one you bankrolled via another business and had been hanging around unsold and unsellable for a few years previously.

From a passenger perspective, however, the loss of second ship back-up was always going to be a problem. As a marine engineer chum puts it, ‘if you’re going to move stuff up and down the M1 every day, day in, day out, do you do that in a Ferrari or something a bit more robust?’

Reliability was also affected in another way. Lose an engine on the old wavepiercers and you were running on 75% power. Drop one on the Liberation, with only three to start with, and you’re down to 66% power.

Splitting hairs? Perhaps, except Liberation has problems maintaining its service times when everything’s going well, let alone if it’s limping along. Even then, the boarding times for passengers were introduced for the benefit of owner Macquarie – to enable a single-ship, reduced-cost model – rather than for the convenience and ease of customers.

There’s more, but you get the drift. And politicians and civil servants happily agreed to the very arrangements and changes which inevitably put Condor on a collision course with its fare-paying passengers. We’ve seen the consequences of that in the recent transport satisfaction surveys, and both islands continue to pay the price for what’s happened.

So when I saw Jersey’s Economic Development minister Lyndon Farnham saying this week he was pressing Condor to add a new passenger ferry to its fleet, I nearly choked on my morning coffee.

I’ve no inside knowledge of what’s happening regarding the sale of Condor but there are a couple of constants that affect any outcome. The first is that Liberation has unfortunately become a PR liability and customer confidence won’t return while it operates the UK-CI routes.

Yet who will pay to replace the vessel, triggering a massive loss on its book value and requiring the equally massive cost of acquiring a new boat? Brittany Ferries, if, indeed, they emerge as new owners? Condor/Macquarie, by reducing the asking price of the operation they’re selling? The governments of these islands?

None seem particularly likely to me. Especially since suitable replacement ships aren’t sitting on a shelf somewhere and have to be ordered. So you’re pretty much stuck with Liberation for a minimum of three years even if – and that’s a big if – the passenger profits justify such lavish investment.

The second constant is that the freight side of things is a very nice little earner indeed. It’s why we’ve seen the MV Musketier brought in to operate a rival non-perishable freight service. It tells you something, if a logistics operation can source its own ship, start a service from scratch and presumably undercut the incumbent.

Yet to what extent – if at all – should a near-monopoly freight service be used to subsidise a passenger service? Why should I pay even more for a pallet of bricks just so Mr and Mrs Winstanley can arrive here from Poole a bit more cheaply?

Again, we don’t know whether the States of either island are considering getting involved in the purchase of Condor, although Guernsey has been making interested noises. Macquarie Bank, of course, bought the Isle of Man Steam Packet Group back in 2005, while the Manx government effectively nationalised it for £124m. last year and may even allow islanders to buy shares in it.

The third constant is that ships are getting bigger. This matters for a couple of reasons. Both the Goodwill and Clipper are around 20 years old and will need to be replaced at some stage.

If, as most observers agree, the islands are best served by two conventional ferries ploughing across the Channel whatever the weather, then the new vessel Senator Farnham’s talking to Condor about – effectively a Clipper Mark II with more and better passenger capabilities – will have to be designed, ordered and built.

With shipyards as they are, expect a three- to four-year delay, but you’re buying a vessel that’s pretty small by today’s standards because anything larger won’t fit into St Peter Port or St Helier. Which means you’re paying a lot for built-in obsolescence because neither island has tackled the other elephant in the room – inadequate harbours.

So when I hear politicians talking about how they intend driving Condor forward in the future, I sincerely hope they make a better job of it than they did last time around.

. This week’s column is based on an article prepared for the Jersey Evening Post.

Most Read

Top Stories

More From The Guernsey Press

UK & International News