Comhairle nan Eilean Siar has urged Transport Scotland to support as many of the short-term improvements identified in a network plan for Outer Hebrides ferry services as soon as possible and have these in place for summer 2020.
This was one of a number of points made by the Comhairle at a recent meeting with Transport Scotland and their consultants’ PBA to consider the findings of the Outer Hebrides Scottish Transport Appraisal Group (STAG) in Stornoway.
The STAG study is a long-term appraisal of options for the ferry routes to and within the Outer Hebrides. It has identified and evaluated options for the short, medium and long term development of these services.
The meeting was also attended by the Western Isles MSP, Alasdair Allan, the Outer Hebrides Tourism, Angus Campbell (Chairman of the CalMac Communities Board) and officers who took part in the study reference group from the Comhairle and HITRANS.
The consultants presented a draft network plan to the meeting and took questions from members.
While welcoming the opportunity to support the STAG process Councillors took the opportunity to express the frustration of the island communities and businesses that previous studies which identified the need for a two-ferry service to Stornoway had been ignored leading to a continuation of the severe capacity limitations that are constraining the ability of our key economic sectors to grow.
It was noted that a dedicated ferry on each of the ferry services from Uig to Harris and Uist was required, yet the decision to provide a relatively modest increase in capacity by ordering a single new ferry to continue the shared resource that has been in place for 55 years, was taken without any regard to the wishes of the islands or their representatives.
Members urged Transport Scotland to support as many of the short-term improvements identified in the network plan and have these in place for Summer 2020.
In the medium to long term Members made clear the support for a new ferry to be introduced to serve Lochboisdale and made clear the Comhairle’s support for a two-ferry service from Stornoway to Ullapool, a dedicated ferry for Lochmaddy to Uig and a dedicated ferry for Tarbert to Uig.
The replacement of ageing ferries must be addressed and a vessel replacement plan must be produced to ensure the fleet is brought up to standard.
But no update was available to the meeting on when New Vessel 802 will be completed.
The continued failure to complete MV Glen Sannox and New Vessel 802 means there is a very real prospect that only two major ferries will have entered service from 2001 to 2021.
Chairman of Transportation and Infrastructure, Cllr Uisdean Robertson, said: “The meeting provided a useful opportunity to engage with Transport Scotland and make clear the position of the Comhairle on how ferry services to our area should develop.
“There was of course frustration on previous times where community views have been ignored, or not looked for at all, leading to many of the capacity issues affecting ferry travel today.
“That local voices have been ignored in shaping ferry services is a fact both in planning services and with the lack of devolved senior management within communities leading to poor operational decision making.
“The Comhairle were pleased to express a view in support of the range of short term measures identified in the network plan being delivered and in addition to replacing older ferries on routes to Castlebay and Lochboisdale.
“We look to Government to deliver an additional ferry on the Stornoway route and a ferry on each of the routes across the Little Minch to Lochmaddy and Tarbert.”
Leader of the Comhairle, Cllr Roddie MacKay, added: “Councillors are all too often the first point of contact for frustrated travellers.
“It is time that decisions on ferry services were made at a local level and that the views of those who depend on ferry services were listened to.
“We will look closely at the next steps of this STAG process to see if our voice has been heard this time after being ignored too frequently in the past. It might help restore a degree of our and the public’s confidence in the process if we see the short term proposals from the report worked up this year in time for implementing them next April.”