‘People are at their wit’s end’ over ferries

“Despair” and “desperation” were among the words being used this week as Caledonian MacBrayne services were plunged into further chaos following the withdrawal of the MV Hebrides from the Uig-Tarbert-Lochmaddy routes.

The MV Hebrides berthed in Tarbert. The latest breakdown was described by a Uist haulier as a "shambles".
The MV Hebrides berthed in Tarbert. The latest breakdown was described by a Uist haulier as a "shambles".

The chairman of Comhairle nan Eilean Siar’s transportation committee, Uisdean Robertson, told the Gazette on Wednesday: “I spent yesterday and today listening to people on the phone who are absolutely desperate. I don’t know where else we can go with any of this. We are not being listened to”.

He said there had been a meeting with the Scottish Transport Minister, Jenny Gilruth, earlier in the week which also involved CMAL, CalMac and Highland Council which was mainly about the proposed withdrawal of the Uig triangle routes for a six month period. That was before the latest crisis.

Mr Robertson said: “Nothing had moved from the position stated by CalMac in December. Nothing has been done to improve the resilience of the fleet and we have seen again this week what that leads to. People are at their wits’ end with this.

“I don’t know what more the Comhairle can do. There is no one to go to. There is nobody listening”. He renewed calls for the Scottish Government to allow CalMac to secure the services of the MV Pentalina in order to create greater resilience in the fleet.

He said: “You would think that by this time everyone would agree this has to be done. Buying or leasing at least one additional vessel is the only show in town as far as we can see. Otherwise, this is only going to get worse and worse”.

Last week in an interview with the Gazette, CalMac managing director Robbie Drummond warned that they were facing “enormous challenges in resilience” due to the Scottish Government’s failure to maintain the previous schedule of vessel renewal. The average of the fleet, he said, is leading to increasing problems with maintenance.

This was quickly confirmed when the 22 year-old MV Hebrides – which should by now have been replaced by one of the uncompleted hulks lying at the Ferguson yard in Port Glasgow – developed a problem on Tuesday with its firefighting system.

A CalMac statement said: “Due to an issue with the vessel’s firefighting system, MV Hebrides has been removed from service and will reposition to Ullapool to undergo repairs, as a result, all sailings on this route are cancelled.”

Today (Thursday) the MV Hebridean Isles was being despatched to cover the route and it is hoped the MV Hebrides may be able to return to service tomorrow.

Uist haulier Gail Robertson, who is a member of the CalMac Advisory Board, described the situation as “a shambles … unbelievable. We are in the position of getting lorries in but not knowing whether we will be able to get them out again.

“People had very little time on Tuesday night to try to re-book on the Armadale sailing. They were hanging on waiting for a reply for 20 minutes and then on the stroke of nine o’clock they were told the office was closed. We are in despair.

“The communications are bad and that is coming from the top. CalMac’s own people in the ports don’t know what is happening”.

One of the passengers stranded at Uig on Tuesday was the UK Government minister, Iain Stewart, who was due to undertake engagements on Harris on Tuesday afternoon.

Instead he was driven to Inverness where he took a plane to Stornoway In time to pick up on his schedule.

Harris councillor Grant Fulton commented: “At least the minister has sampled what residents of Harris have to experience.

"It was disappointing in that the minister missed vital meetings with community groups involved in essential local developments”

Gail Robertson, who is transport manager for D.J. Buchanan Haulage, also expressed concerns about plans for the winter months, particularly during the period when the MV Lord of the Isles goes away for annual maintenance.

There are concerns that no replacement will be available and that Uist will for that period be wholly dependent on the proposed Lochmaddy-Stornoway link which is already regarded as completely inadequate to take the surplus freight involved.

When the Gazette asked for reassurance at least on this point, a spokeswoman replied: “Winter deployment has not yet been agreed and various options are still being assessed.”

Intending travellers are advised to keep an eye on the CalMac website for further updates.