Islanders have demanded “emergency intervention” from the Scottish Government’s transport minister as they warned that reductions in CalMac’s services could force them into “rationing” spaces on ferries.
Members of the Mull and Iona Ferry Committee made the plea in an open letter to transport minister Kevin Stewart as a result of “CalMac’s latest proposed service cuts” – which they said means the main ferry serving their islands is redeployed to cover the service to Lochboisdale in South Uist.
The committee complained it was given just seven days notice of the change, which is due to begin in the second half of May, and it has “torn up” the timetable they rely on.
The committee’s chairman Joe Reade said that islanders may now have “no option but to consider rationing” spaces on the ferries, as he also demanded compensation be paid to businesses in Hebrides who have suffered as a result of problems with CalMac ferries.
In the open letter, he wrote: “We are currently unable to book travel on or off the island via Oban until almost June. Pretty much every sailing is showing as full, and not just for vehicles but for foot passengers also. This is absolutely unprecedented.
“Our islands are being strangled during the second half of May as a result of this latest deterioration. Islanders cannot leave, unless they made arrangements weeks ago. Tourists, absolutely essential to our economy, will be turned away.
The plea comes in the wake of a series of problems which have hit the state-owned operator’s ageing fleet.
CalMac is currently waiting for two new vessels being constructed at the Ferguson Marine yard in Port Glasgow – but completion of these is now several years late, with costs having gone massively over budget.
Speaking about the situation in Mull and Iona, Mr Reade said: “We have no option but to consider rationing ferry space. This is where things have got to now.
“For affected businesses across all the islands, it is now time to start compensating for lost business.
“Hundreds of millions of pounds have been poured into Port Glasgow to keep Ferguson’s afloat but nothing has yet been offered to all the businesses across the Hebrides who together employ thousands.”
The committee branded CalMac’s handling of the situation as “chaotic” as they warned the change to services will see them “strangled”, with locals unable to get to the mainland when needed, while tourists will be unable to visit.
Mr Reade added: “Whilst ways have been found to maintain current service levels to every other Hebridean island, Mull and Iona are alone in having our only major vessel withdrawn and not replaced with a similar capacity vessel.”
The changes planned by CalMac would result in about 250 fewer car spaces and nearly 7,000 fewer passenger spaces on boats to Mull and Iona every day, the committee said.
With the “ferry system in utter chaos”, Mr Reade said islanders had “no confidence” the MV Isle of Mull would return to its usual service at the end of this month.
He urged the transport minister to hold “an emergency meeting with CalMac to try to “find solutions” to its ferry problems.
While Mr Reade said residents on Mull and Iona were “loath to make this an island-against-island issue”, they questioned whether it was “really equitable that every other service is maintained at the current capacity through May, but Mull has its only major vessel removed”.
Minister for Transport Kevin Stewart said: “I fully understand the challenges facing our island communities during this period of disruption to ferry services. This is not just about transport performance in itself. It’s about delivering the confidence needed to sustain island populations.
“Regrettably, there have been ongoing technical issues with vessels resulting in delays to the annual overhaul programme and cancellation of sailings. There are communities who have been greatly impacted and we fully recognise the need to improve confidence in services. We continue to work with CalMac and CMAL to improve reliability and resilience across our networks, with the charter agreement for the MV Alfred a reflection of this ongoing work. We are also reinvesting any penalty deductions into the operation of the network.
“Operational decisions regarding the Clyde and Hebrides Ferry Services lie with CalMac as the operator. They engage with individual customers, hauliers, port operators, and Local Resilience Partnerships to gather information and to make informed decisions on how best to deploy available assets in a safe and efficient manner for the benefit of our island and remote communities.
“Whilst sympathetic to the calls to support businesses through compensation, our focus rightly has to be on building resilience into the ferry network.”