Flicker of hope for a Stornoway freight vessel

There is mounting pressure to find a freight vessel to relieve the pressure on the MV Loch Seaforth, which services the Stornoway to Ullapool route.
There is mounting pressure to find a freight vessel to relieve the pressure on the MV Loch Seaforth, which services the Stornoway to Ullapool route.

The call for a freight ferry on the Stornoway to Ullapool route as a way to relieve traveller demand on the MV Loch Seaforth has been a cry, which so far, has fallen on deaf ears.

However islanders in another part of Scotland have heard their voices heard on just this topic, when it was reported that an extra freight ferry to serve Shetland set sail last weekend.

The MV Arrow will provide resilience to Shetland services, following technical issues, which resulted in fresh salmon being left behind on the Island.

In a statement to the press Minister for Energy, Connectivity and the Islands, Paul Wheelhouse said that the temporary charter of the vessel had been secured to provide additional capacity and resilience to ensure the timely delivery of stock like salmon to markets and to support the local and national economy.

However the move has been seen as a slap in the face to the Western Isles where campaigners have been calling for a freight vessel to support the demands being put on the Stornoway to Ullapool route.

DISPARITY

The Western Isles Labour Party has hit out at the Scottish Government over the matter calling it a “gross disparity in its approach to ferry services and the needs of island businesses”.

Prospective Labour candidate for Westminster Alison MacCorquodale said that the decision to charter an additional freight vessel for Shetland services stood in “dismal contrast” to the rejection by Ministers of the same option for the Western Isles.

Alison may be standing on Labour’s ticket for a political place as an MP, but she is keen to be involved in the whole political life of the Islands, even if these matters would not strictly fall under her remit.

She added: “We do not grudge our friends in Shetland whatever they can get to alleviate their own problems.

“However, nobody in the Western Isles will understand why the ferry crises we have faced over the summer could not be treated with the same consideration or urgency.”

Ms MacCorquodale continued: “We have been told repeatedly by the Scottish Government and local SNP representatives that there are no vessels available for charter, although we have produced evidence in the recent past to show that this is untrue.

“Their credibility and excuses now lie in tatters. Where there is a will there is a way; but it is blatantly obvious that distress signals from the Western Isles have not been getting through to Edinburgh.”

She called for the urgent reintroduction of a freight vessel on the Stornoway-Ullapool route to relieve pressure on the Loch Seaforth and also for a back-up car ferry to be leased for the network until the long-delayed vessel - now expected to be completed in 2020 - for the Uig-Tarbert-Lochmaddy route is ready to begin service.

Ms MacCorquodale added: “Neither the communities affected, nor Ferguson’s Shipyard are 100% sure when the new vessel will be delivered.

“CalMac and the people of the Western Isles cannot be left for another eighteen months at the mercy of forces that are entirely outwith their control.

“This is a fundamental issue for the Western Isles economy. We deserve the same consideration that has been shown to Shetland and in order to get that message across we need strong voices to make the case on behalf of the people of the Western Isles.”

NORTHERN ISLES SUPPORT

Councillor Uisdean Robertson, Chair of the Comhairle’s Transportation and Infrastructure Committee pointed out the support given by the Scottish Government to Shetland and Orkney in recent months.

He said: “Over this period, the Scottish Government has provided additional revenue funding of some £5.5m to support internal ferry services in Orkney, has provided loan funding to CMAL to purchase outright from the Royal Bank of Scotland the three passenger ferries serving the Northern Isles, and this week concluded the charter of a third freighter to address capacity concerns on the service to Shetland.”

He added: “Whilst this additional investment by Scottish Government obviously benefits the communities and business sectors in the Northern Isles, it is disappointing for the same sectors in the Western Isles that little or no progress has been made in addressing capacity and resilience issues on routes to and within these islands.

“This is despite the Comhairle and others having made a significant number of representations and evidence-based arguments to Scottish Ministers over several years”.

“We are looking forward to constructive meetings with both Paul Wheelhouse, MSP, Minister for Energy, Connectivity and the Islands, and Michael Matheson MSP, Cabinet Secretary for Transport, Infrastructure and Connectivity, over the coming weeks and shall seek to secure additional funding support for Western Isles’ ferry services similar to that provided by the Government for Orkney and Shetland.”

CASE ACCEPTED

On the heels of the Shetland freight vessel news local MSP Alasdair Allan was able to offer the Western Isles a chink of light at the end of the tunnel over ferry services.

This week, he told the Gazette: “I have been vocal in the need for additional capacity to the Western Isles. Specifically, I have made the case to the Scottish Government for an additional vessel on the Ullapool to Stornoway route to cover the summer months – a case which was accepted.”

He continued: “My understanding is that the vessel in Shetland which has been in the news has been chartered for a period of a few weeks to cope with specific issues related to the Shetland shellfish industry.

“We need an additional vessel that is suitable for the Western Isles, attainable on the open market and available to actually cover the periods of peak demand.

“This is a need I have conveyed very strongly to the new Islands Minister Paul Wheelhouse and I hope we can see progress on this front before next summer.”