West coast ferries bring turmoil for islands


Transport Scotland has said it recognises the frustration of communities in the islands off its west coast over disruption to services run by the state-owned operator.

The Times reported that community leaders are considering a buy-out of sailing routes as turmoil over ferry services fuels island depopulation and leaves businesses ‘teetering on the brink’.

A CalMac ferry at Brodick on Arran

It highlighted the case of the Ardrossan to Arran service, where the number of cancelled sailings has risen steadily over five years, from 264 (5%) in 2017 to 587 (17%) so far in 2021.

Services to and from islands off the west coast of Scotland are run by Caledonian MacBrayne (CalMac) under the umbrella of Caledonian Maritime Assets Limited (CMAL), which also owns much of the infrastructure. Services on the routes to Orkney and the Shetland Isles are privately run by Serco under the NorthLink brand.

A Transport Scotland spokesperson said: ‘Whilst the management and maintenance of the vessels is an operational issue for CalMac, we recognise communities’ frustration during periods of disruption. We are doing everything that we can to support CalMac to maximise available capacity across the network.

‘Every effort is made to avoid breakdowns, but it is impossible to completely remove the risk of this happening in technically complex vessels. During times of disruption, we always seek to work with CalMac to deliver additional sailings wherever possible.’

CalMac, managing director Robbie Drummond told the Times that cancellations on the Ardrossan-Arran route were higher than usual this year due in part to the need to divert one of the vessels that normally operates on the route to another route.

He added: ‘Many cancellations this year were also due to poor weather and Covid cases amongst crew on vessels and in ports.’

On Saturday (10 October) Calmac cancelled or delayed a number of sailings on the route after a case of COVID hit workers.

The Scottish Government has also been severely criticised for its management of an order for two new ferries from the Ferguson Marine shipyard in Port Glasgow, which went into administration and was nationalised in 2019.

The ferries have yet to be completed and their original £97m cost is reported to have risen to an estimated £300m.

One vessel will operate on the Uig triangle route, while the other, the MV Glen Sannox, is due to operate on the Ardrossan to Arran route.

Doubts have now been raised as to whether an upgrade of the harbour at Ardrossan will be completed in time for the delayed vessel.

Critics have suggested that both vessels are too big for the number of passengers on the routes they are due to serve, an issue that is said to apply to much of the CalMac fleet.

Last month it emerged that Ferguson Marine had not made the shortlist for contracts to build new ferries for Islay and Jura.

Scottish Labour leader Anas Sarwar described it as an ‘international humiliation’.

A Transport Scotland spokesperson said: ‘We acknowledge the CMAL fleet is ageing and as such we are delivering new tonnage to support our communities by working with CMAL, CalMac, MSPs, community representatives and others to develop investment programmes - at least £580m over the next five years - for major vessels and small vessels.

‘We are also looking at other credible, affordable and viable options to improve resilience, such as the recent short term charter of the MV Arrow on the Stornoway-Ullapool route and the deal to buy the MV Utne to operate on the Oban-Craignure route.

‘Previous CMAL announcements on the Islay vessels procurement and the Small Vessel Replacement Programme are further evidence. However, it must be recognised that finding suitable vessels on a short term basis is challenging in the current market.’

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