The Scottish Government is ordering two new CalMac ferries in a £115m contract to benefit Western Isles communities.
Residents have been hit with disruption for years with ongoing breakdowns, suspensions and cancellations to ferries having a “catastrophic” effect on business and tourism, islanders say.
The Scottish Government has set aside funds in a bid to improve the Clyde and Hebrides network and support Caledonian Maritime Assets Limited (CMAL) with the replacement of two CalMac vessels, with a total of six expected to be replaced by 2026.
“Our communities deserve better ferry services than we have been getting and this is a major step forward, one that I hope can be built on in the development of lifeline Island travel services,” said councillor Uisdean Robertson, chair of the Western Isles Council’s Transportation and Infrastructure Committee.
It comes as two CalMac ferries, being built at the nationalised Ferguson Marine shipyard, are still not ready despite the cost increasing by more than £84m in the last six months.
They are due to be ready more than five years later than originally planned. The two new ferries will also mean that the delayed hull 802 could be deployed alongside the MV Glen Sannox destined to serve Arran.
The new project is estimated to cost around £115m with contracts expected to be awarded by the end of the year. It will mean communities in Harris and North Uist will benefit from a two vessel service and will see a total of six major vessels will be replaced by 2026.
The vessels will be deployed on the Uig, Tarbert and Lochmaddy routes and the works will include minor improvements to ports.
“The Comhairle, and many other local and community groups have been calling for much needed additional capacity and resilience in the CalMac fleet so [Wednesday]’s announcement will be welcomed throughout the Islands,” said councillor Robertson.
“We would take this opportunity to thank the minister, Transport Scotland and CMAL for listening to the case we have made.”
Minister for transport Jenny Gilruth said the Government was “absolutely committed” to improving the lifeline ferry fleet and better meeting the needs of island communities.
“Our intention is that these ferries would be deployed on the Skye triangle routes to Lochmaddy and Tarbert, delivering dedicated services to communities in the peak season rather than the shared vessel operation currently in place.
“It will also allow consideration of all options to deploy Vessel 802 on an alternative route, including potentially alongside her sister ship, the MV Glen Sannox, to provide additional capacity to and from Arran in the peak season.”
Gilruth said that, since May 2021, the Government had bought and deployed an additional vessel in the MV Loch Frisa in June, previously chartered the MV Arrow to provide additional capacity, made “significant progress” in the construction of vessels 801 and 802, commissioned two new vessels for Islay and progressed investment to improve key ports and harbours.
“Now, we are delivering a further two new vessels as well as continuing to work on pursuing all reasonable and appropriate opportunities to enhance capacity and resilience in the short term through second hand vessels,” she said.
The Scottish Conservatives said it was a “relief” to see the SNP pushing forward with the replacement programme.
“But after the fiasco at Ferguson Marine, no-one be holding their breath for these vessels being delivered any time soon,” said shadow minister for transport Graham Simpson.
“The Ferguson Marine scandal has already cost the public up to £300m and we are still months away from either ferry setting sail.
“Now, it looks as though Hull 802 may not even be used for the original route it was promised to serve, as CalMac desperately try to cover the shortcomings in their ageing fleet caused by SNP incompetence.
“The SNP must now commit to a fully open transparent procurement process and long-term funding for Scotland’s ferry provision, if they want to win back any trust from furious island residents.”