Comhairle say no to limited timetables
Comhairle nan Eilean Siar has confirmed that there will be no reductions in CalMac’s timetables for ferries services to the Western Isles.
The confirmation came after meetings between the local authority, CalMac and Transport Scotland late last week.
Confusion had initially arisen following the issuing of a statement by Comhairle nan Eilean Siar which stated they would not countenance any reduction in ferry timetables.
Transport Scotland had, in a statement said that they had no plans to reduce services.
A Transport Scotland spokesperson said: “We have been working with CalMac throughout all phases of lock-down to continuously review whether services are running at the appropriate levels, in light of the current low levels of demand and ongoing travel restrictions due to the coronavirus pandemic.
“There are no plans to reduce services from current levels unless communities want us to do that, and we will be engaging with local authorities, Regional Transport Partnerships and tourism bodies to discuss their feedback later this week.”
Those meetings have now taken place, and a spokesperson for Comhairle nan Eilean Siar said in an updated statement: “It was confirmed yesterday (Thursday, February 25) that there would be no reductions in timetables which will be welcomed by communities in the Western Isles and elsewhere.”
Earlier this month, the General Secretary of the TSSA, the transport trade union, Manuel Cortes had called for service reductions, and said in a statement: “It’s a ridiculous waste of money for CalMac to be running empty ferries, to say nothing of its environmental impact. We know these ferries are a lifeline service and some must continue to run to the islands. But tourists aren’t travelling because of the lock-down and as a result, demand has sharply dropped. ScotRail has cut back its timetable and CalMac should do likewise.
“Time for some good old-fashioned common sense. CalMac are owned by the Scottish Government so the buck stops with them. Transport Minister Michael Matheson and First Minister Nicola Sturgeon must step in and tell CalMac to run a reduced timetable to meet demand.”
Robert Morrison, Operations Director for CalMac confirmed in a statement: "Transport Scotland have asked CalMac to seek views on potential service reductions, based on current demand and in the context of ongoing travel restrictions.
"The information and feedback received will be shared with Transport Scotland, and this will in turn support any decisions they make around changes to our timetabled services."
In a response to Transport Scotland sent earlier this week over possible ‘temporary service changes’, the Comhairle said: “It cannot reasonably be said that there is an urgent need to reduce services on account of COVID issues when Scotland has been in Level three or four since December 2020.”
The Comhairle also stated in its response that with 'the imminent return' to the summer timetable, a reduction in COVID cases, the progress of the vaccination programme and “the possible return of the Western Isles to Level three (from April 26 when Scotland will be taken out of lockdown and returned to the tier system) this seems to be a strange time to be discussing the reduction of services”.
The Comhairle concluded in its response: “…these comments are made in the context of considerable and damaging service failures, particularly in Uist and Barra, which are only partly attributable to weather.
"In many island communities injury is added to insult when the reality is that ferry service reliability is so poor that interaction between passengers and crews is already much reduced as ferry services are so disrupted by weather and technical failures across the ageing fleet that Government has placed at Calmac’s disposal.
“The Comhairle considers that, rather than reducing services, Transport Scotland should instruct CalMac to find greater flexibility within its fleet, assisting the company whenever possible through the purchase or leasing of other vessels, some of which are available elsewhere in Scotland.”
On Thursday, Western isles MSP Angus MacNeil added his voice to those rejecting reductions in the ferry services.
He said: “I had written to the Scottish Government as a matter of urgency on this issue.
"There are many transport needs in the islands. I know that the Scottish Salmon Company in Lewis need to use some of the ferries that were scheduled to be cut. Similarly in Barra, Barratlantic need the ferries, there are only five a week to Barra and there will be needs in Uist and Harris as well.
“The Sound of Barra and Harris ferries are needed not just for their own sailings but to meet up with each other which is why the last sailing to Barra is important. Also, the Lochmaddy ferry which arrives at 3.45pm in Lochmaddy, doesn’t meet well with the 4.30pm sailing from Eriskay to Barra.
“Perhaps that is a longer-term issue that needs to be looked at.
"Meanwhile, while we are looking at transportation issue, perhaps the Comhairle could look to improve the areas of transportation they are responsible for because Council transport often doesn’t link in with others and seems to operate independently of others into, between and out of the islands.”