Monday, 22 February 2010

Northern Ireland Civil Service and NALIL Blog

[Updated February 26]

Recent prolonged lurking by a few Northern Ireland civil servants on NALIL blog is something of a mystery. Most regular viewers either take a direct feed or find what they want in a minute or two.

Statistics show that from January 22 to February 12 a few NICS computers were monitoring the blog for up to several hours each day. I published these statistics on Scribd on Friday February 12 but not on NALIL blog and lo and behold there was some frantic activity on Monday February 15 and virtually all NICS interest in the blog appeared to evaporate or else went into hiding.

It's my impression that the lurkers were waiting for something to be published. A number of possibilities come to mind. There's been the EU Commission inquiry [ref: 610/09/TREN] into several aspects of the Rathlin ferry contract which began in March 2009, which should have been more or less over in ten weeks of a fast track Pilot process but which has only just been completed.

There's been the publication of the first set of annual accounts by Rathlin Island Ferry Limited (RIFL). The accounts submitted to Companies House have not been audited yet audited accounts were part of the tender specification. Accounts for RIFL sister companies in Cape Clear, Co Cork, for 2001 and 2006 have also raised a few eyebrows. Has NICS been negligent in its evaluation of the financial standing of the RIFL directors and their other companies?

I'm told that two of the RIFL directors have been on annual leave whilst the third is skippering their Cape Clear ferry. The directors are giving up this service at the end of February allegedly because it has never made money, a claim apparently disputed by Ireland's DCRGA, the body that provides the subsidy.

The directors are also scheduled to appear before an industrial tribunal in Belfast at the beginning of March following their decision to dispense with the position of business and engineering manager on the Rathlin ferry route in the autumn of 2008. This begs the question, "Who has been managing the Rathlin service with the necessary qualifications whilst the directors have been absent?". Also, why is the ferry terminal closed for lunch when the administrative staff could take a staggered break?

The new catamaran, the Rathlin Express, finally went back into service on January 27 [hist]. The vessel has a service speed of 17-18 knots and a top speed of over 20 knots but the Maritime and Coastguard Agency state that the current speed of the vessel through the water is just 13 knots. MCA has yet to indicate whether or not this is a limitation that it has set. If this lower speed is a long term restriction then the timetables will have to be modified to reflect the longer crossing times. MCA was unable to determine the cause of damage to the catamaran's skegs so presumably the risk of further damage remains.

Added February 25 and 26 recorded speeds of 17.5 to 20.7 knots from February 22 to February 25. What explanation can be given for these speeds to and from Rathlin which are well above the 13 knots speed referred to by the MCA? Do they represent the breach of a speed restriction? Do they expose passengers to unnecessary risks? The MCA seems reluctant to indicate whether or not the 13 knots speed is indeed a restriction.

I'm told this twin hulled vessel experiences cavitation problems at higher speeds. I understand this means that the propellors are biting into a variable mixture of air and water and so at any moment in time each propellor will be delivering different thrusts to the catamaran. When you factor in the often turbulent waters of Rathlin Sound you can see that a catamaran will behave very differently in these waters to a single hulled vessel.

MCA reply:

Before her return to Ballycastle on 17 December 2009 the Rathlin Express underwent a full 'in water' and 'out of water' survey in Arklow . A further inclining experiment followed this survey and the vessel has a fully approved stability book.

The MCA has not applied any speed restriction to the Rathlin Express.

The loaded draft of the Rathlin Express is 1.353m.

Why did the MCA mention a current service speed of 13 knots when indicated that the vessel was recently mostly travelling in the range 18-20 knots? The draft is very similar to the Canna's 1.m and the Canna was known to have grounded on a number of occasions at the entrance to Rathlin's inner harbour. Perhaps the damage to the catamaran skegs was caused by grounding at the same location.