Charter ferry options remain uncertain
Comhairle nan Eilean Siar transportation committee chair, Uisdean Robertson, said this week: “Chartering continues to be raised at every meeting with the Minister and keeps getting batted away with ‘commercial confidentiality’.
“It is extremely worrying that with all the signals suggesting we are in for another very uncertain winter, there is still no sign of a conclusion to negotiations that are supposed to be taking place”.
The urgency was highlighted last week when seven vessels – almost a quarter of the fleet – were out of action due to technical problems. This resulted in a further spate of cancellations with vessels shuffled around to give temporary cover.
Islands haulier David Wood said: “It’s the worst it’s ever been since I started and I don’t see it getting any better in the foreseeable future. Nobody takes responsibility.
" I haven’t heard anything about chartering for months and now the ‘Arrow’ has been sold I guess that’s off the agenda. That deal could have been done long ago”.
The cargo vessel MV Arrow, which has in the past served as a freight replacement on the Stornoway-Ullapool run, was recently sold for £8 million by Seatruck Ferries to the Isle of Man Steam Packet Company which has previously used it as a back-up.
In August, Transport Minister Jenny Gilruth told community representatives she had instructed officials to re-open negotiations about leasing the MV Pentalina, owned by Pentland Ferries, but nothing more has been heard about that.
A source told the Gazette there have been “no recent discussions”.
Once again, Lochboisdale was the port hardest hit when the ‘Lord of the Isles’ was withdrawn and had to be taken to the Cammell Laird yard on Merseyside for extensive repairs to an area of steelwork, leaving the South Uist port without a service throughout last week.
Mr Robertson said this episode was “particularly worrying” because of Uist’s intended reliance on ‘LOTI’ from January during the period when Uig pier on Skye is closed.
Lochmaddy’s connection during much of next year will be via Ullapool creating new reliability questions and making the Oban/Mallaig -Lochboisdale link even more critical. Mr Wood described the Uist prospects as “bad and going to get worse”.
Meanwhile, Uisdean Robertson met this week with Angus Campbell, the former Comhairle leader who has been commissioned by the Scottish Government to lead a consultation into the future structure of ferry operations.
Mr Campbell has still been given no specific remit or assurances about logistical support. However, he said he would not be restricted by “red lines” drawn by the Scottish Government to rule out radical options for reorganisation.
This was welcomed by Mr Robertson who said there was a danger of the consultation being used as “another device to kick things down the road while everything is decided in Edinburgh”.