Ferry operators must consider how to continue providing reliable services when regular vessels are non-operational

Not so many years ago, any decent-sized ferry company would have at its disposal what was termed as a ‘reserve ship’ – a spare vessel that could be pressed into service if one of the regulars was unable to operate as planned.  

It was possibly an older ship that had been replaced by younger tonnage but would become very useful if there was an engine breakdown, a need for an unscheduled dry docking or another issue that would otherwise leave passengers and freight frustrated on the quayside.  

Kept in a state of reasonable, if not immediate, readiness, the reserve ship would save the company’s blushes in an emergency and could also be used when its fleetmates were taken out of service for regular scheduled maintenance. As this vessel had likely paid for itself many years previously, operators regarded it as a modest and worthwhile cost to ensure they could maintain reliable services. 

It is not that resilience no longer matters, but that the ability to lay hands on a reserve vessel has become very rare. This is a result of modern attitudes to accountancy, along with the ability to translate a ship that is redundant to immediate need into instant cash that will register favourably in the quarterly results. And if a ferry has been maintained properly, it will attract attention in the sale and purchase market, which is fast-moving and thoroughly international. The finance director will assert that opportunities to boost the cashflow must be taken, even though the operating team would have welcomed the cushion of a reserve ship to help out when necessary. And while the operating team might plead the case of customers who may go elsewhere if sailings are cancelled, it is ultimately money in the bank that counts.  

If the spare ship is no longer available, sensible ferry operators have to think more constructively. It might be that in the event of a ship becoming unavailable, it is possible to charter in a replacement, something that is a more regular occurrence on the freight berth than is possible with ro-pax vessels, which tend to be fewer in number. It may be that a degree of resilience is provided by sister vessels on the same route, managing to squeeze in additional sailings to compensate. Alternatively, it might be that an operator with a reasonably interoperable fleet can temporarily switch a ship. But operators must make an effort to find a solution; cancelled sailings, frustrated customers and the sort of publicity such failings generate produce a negative legacy of perceived unreliability that takes both time and effort to erase.  

It might be argued that modern ferries are more reliable, because of their multi-engined arrangement, although any marine engineer will point out there are still plenty of issues that can go wrong. They will also note that the attitude of the ‘bean counters’ to spares – which is seen as a cost rather than a sensible precautionary investment – militates against speedy repairs. There are plenty of cases of ships being out of service for far too long, as spare parts, or experts to sort out the problems, are sourced from the other side of the world. And these days, there aren’t dry docks sitting empty waiting for a ferry to need them, should underwater repair become essential. There have to be alternative plans, if a reasonable degree of resilience is to be maintained.  

And it is not just the ships to which stuff might happen. Linkspans and terminal equipment might become damaged, with alternatives not being available at the same terminal. A few years ago in a UK port, three busy ferry routes were simultaneously compromised when the lock which gave access to their berths was seriously damaged. But a riverside berth was still available, so with an astonishing degree of organisation by the terminal operator, all three services were somehow accommodated. That was resilience, writ large. 

Michael Grey is a master mariner turned maritime journalist and has edited both Fairplay and Lloyd’s List in a career spanning more than 60 years. 

This article was first published in the Autumn/Winter 2023 issue of Cruise & Ferry Review. All information was correct at the time of printing, but may since have changed. Subscribe to Cruise & Ferry Review for FREE to get the next issue delivered directly to your inbox. 

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