Campaign launched to avert second ferry crisis

The Loch Portain suffered a breakdown.The Loch Portain suffered a breakdown.
The Loch Portain suffered a breakdown.
Further serious disruption on the Sound of Barra ferry services has strengthened the case for an urgent reappraisal of CMAL’s Small Vessel Replacement Programme to include vital inter-island links.

The substitute vessel, the 27 year-old Loch Bhrusda, was itself withdrawn due to “a technical issue with the propulsion unit”. On Tuesday, an even smaller vessel, MV Loch Linnhe, was redeployed to the route and CalMac warned of “reduced capacity” until at least next Monday. The Loch Linnhe carries only about nine vehicles.

Meanwhile, the chartered vessel MV Alfred has returned to the islands to operate sailings between Tarbert and Lochmaddy as a substitute for the struggling Leverburgh-Berneray route where the MV Loch Portain can only operate in certain weather conditions due to reliance on three engines.

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A concerted campaign is developing to pre-empt what prospective Labour candidate in the Western Isles, Torcuil Crichton, described this week as “a second CalMac crisis in the making”. He has written to Transport Minister, Fiona Hyslop, calling on her to “re-prioritise” the Small Vessels Replacement Programme.Unless this happens, both the Sound of Harris and Sound of Barra will be waiting until at least 2030 for replacement vessels.

The chairman of Comhairle nan Eilean Siar’s transportation committee, Uisdean Robertson, told the Gazette on Wednesday that he had been “inundated” with appeals to seek action on the inter-island routes.

He quoted the example of a consignment of fresh seafood which had been unable to leave Barra due to both the mainland connection and the inter-island route being out of action at the weekend, resulting in financial loss.

Mr Robertson said he had been in touch with CMAL this week about the replacement programme and he found them supportive. However, he added: “The policy has to come from Transport Scotland and ultimately Ministers to bring Phase 2 forward”. No Outer Isles route has been included in the first phase which runs until 2028.

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He said that the cancellations and service limitations on both Sounds had brought home just how important these routes are to businesses throughout the Western Isles as well as to those with hospital appointments and other commitments.

“There is a particular difficulty on the Sound of Harris because the shallowness of the water restricts the vessels that can operate there. That means very little flexibility even within the existing fleet and we are seeing the implications of that at present”

In his letter to the Transport Minister, Mr Crichton wrote: “The state of the inter-island ferry service, the lifeblood of the Western Isles, has the makings of a second CalMac crisis, Scottish government ministers have been warned.

“Although I understand CMAL and CalMac have operational autonomy through Transport Scotland I urge you to press for a rethink on the priorities and of the ferry replacement programme.

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“Without a rescheduled procurement plan the ferry services connecting the islands will become completely broken and the provision of health board, council and commercial services will be badly undermined.”

Mr Crichton said his call adds to concerns already raised by Comhairle nan Eilean Siar and in parliament by SNP MSP Alastair Allan in a sign that all parties acknowledge the seriousness of the situation.

“No one in the islands believes the existing ferries will last that long. Public services, including NHS care, rely on the ferries provide the Western Isles with their vital links and their identity as a single, unified local goverment area.”