Inter-island ferries: A “big problem” awaits
At present, the MV Loch Portain, which runs between Leverburgh and Berneray, is operating on three engines, which creates “weather limitations” on the service. Operations are being managed on “a day to day basis” dependent on “favourable weather conditions”
As we went to press on Wednesday, all services on the route were cancelled due to weather conditions. The smaller Loch Bhrusda, which was redeployed to the crossing between Ardmhor and Eriskay to cover for the Loch Alainn was also subject to cancellation.
The first phase of CMAL’s small vessels replacement programme, which runs until 2028, does not include either route. Uisdean Robertson, chair of Comhairle nan Eilean Siar’s transportation committee, said: “That means we are looking beyond 2030 and I do not think anyone believes what we have at present is going to last until then”.
In a debate on ferries at Holyrood on Tuesday, Alasdair Allan MSP referred to “recent issues on both the Sound of Harris and the Sound of Barra where the inter-island vessels are rapidly approaching the end of their working lives”. He added: “For that reason, I have made a case to the Minister of Transport for the replacement of those vessels to be brought forward”.
Uist haulier, Gail Robertson, who is a member of the Ferries Community Board, said: “There have been studies done over the years that clearly show the economic need for more capacity on both Sounds. They provide lifeline services across the Western Isles.
“The technical issues with the Loch Portain are now highlighting this. The Sounds carry people for business, health, supply chain and all sorts of lifeline needs. We need more capacity not less and the programme to build replacement small vessels should have been escalated before now. This is a really big problem in the making and failing to address it will be detrimental to our islands’ economy, health and wellbeing for years to come”.
Prospective Labour candidate Torcuil Crichton described the routes as “the lifeblood of the Western Isles” and said: “CMAL have to listen to Comhairle nan Eilean Siar’s calling for the replacement of two vital island ferries to be brought forward. If they don’t, islanders face another ferry crisis on top of the one we are already suffering with the delays to replacing larger car ferries”.
The Gazette asked CMAL if there were any plans to bring forward replacement of these vessels in face of the difficulties being experienced on both routes. However, the response merely stated: “The Sound of Harris and Sound of Barra vessels are scheduled for replacement in phase 2 of the Small Vessels Replacement Programme (SVRP). We are currently in phase 1 of the project, with plans to commence the process for concept design of phase 2 once the procurement is finished for the first phase.”