Millport: Island relying on ageing 'lifeline' ferry faces uncertain summer

Locals and businesses say the ferry connecting Cumbrae with the mainland is 'not fit for purpose' and is impacting tourism.

An island community is calling on the Scottish Government to prioritise new ferries as locals and businesses face an uncertain summer.

Residents of Millport, on the Isle of Cumbrae, say tourism businesses rely on an ageing fleet that connects the island with the mainland.

The small ferry currently serving the route between Cumbrae and Largs can only fit eight vehicles.

It has temporarily replaced a larger ferry after after unexpected damage to the ramp put the regular vessel out of action.

Friday was the final day for people to contribute to the Scottish Government’s Islands Connectivity Plan.

It’s been identifying the public’s priorities for the future of island transport and the challenges facing the ferry network

‘People see the ferry queue and turn around’

Ross Newton

Ross Newton owns the Garrison House Cafe, which is open seven days a week.

He relies on regular deliveries from the mainland – but when there have been sailing delays and his fresh produce has gone off, he’s had to throw it away.

Ross said: “The ferries are quite unreliable. There’s two on today with a combined age of 80 years old, they are not fit for purpose anymore.

“It’s just short term fixes all the time.

“From a customer point of view, sometimes people will come down and see the queue and they’ll just turn around or just stay at Largs, so we don’t get them.”

Ross encourages visitors to take public transport to the ferry to avoid taking up space on the ferry services.

He added: “The island is open for business. It’s nice when families come here. Millport hasn’t changed too much.

“The difficulties come with cars; if you can avoid bringing your car, it’s very easy to get here by bus or train.

“There’s plenty to get you here. That’s the best way to do it.”

‘It’s a shame for the island’

Caroline McGovern, who frequently visits Cumbrae, says it's 'hectic' getting to and from Millport

Caroline McGovern lives on the mainland but visits Cumbrae two or three times a week.

She said: “It’s been hectic getting there and back.

“For us it can cause an inconvenience, with [ferries] being infrequent.

“For example, the other day you didn’t come over. You tried twice to get on the ferry and couldn’t, so you just gave up.

“For people even coming for the day with a family, you’d just give up and not bother coming – and that’s such a shame for the island because the businesses rely on those day trippers.”

‘It’s a lifeline service for us’

Scott Ferris, owner of bike shop Mapes of Millport

Scott Ferris runs popular bike hire shop Mapes of Millport and is hopeful that investment in CalMac’s fleet will happen sooner rather than later.

He said: “I have the confidence that they’ll have to deliver – they can’t continue this way.

“We need new ferries, everywhere needs new ferries. Wherever we pull a ferry from has an impact on somebody else on the ferry route. So, it’s always going to be a knock-on effect.

“It is a lifeline service for us – every half an hour at minimum to get to and from the island, if that’s vets appointments, hospital appointments.

“But, when it comes down to it Friday afternoons, Saturdays, and Sundays there’s no heavy vehicles coming over so it is open for tourism to come over here.”

‘Some people have to stay on the mainland overnight’

Isobel Wright says service has been 'dreadful' in recent years

Isobel Wright was born and raised in Millport and has a lifetime of experience getting on and off the ferry.

“It’s an ageing fleet,” she said. “We need new ferries. 

“It’s normally very good but the last couple of years it’s been dreadful.

“Unfortunately, there’s no petrol on the island so we have to go to the mainland to get petrol.

“People on the island have hospital appointments. They can’t get off and you know how difficult it is to get an appointment in the first place.

“Some people maybe have to go over the night before, stay on the mainland and go to their appointment but then they’re not guaranteed to get back on the island.”

CalMac plan to have the main vessel back on the water in mid-June.

They say they’re prioritising the service and ensuring there will be two ferries on the route to avoid disruption. 

Islanders are hopeful that the ferry service won’t impact their plans to show visitors a fun summer season.

Government ferry consultation

Businesses say they have been impacted by ferry disruption

A public consultation has been seeking views about how best to connect Scotland’s islands.

The Scottish Government has been facing huge criticism over their ability to provide a modern and reliable fleet.

Islanders say Scotland’s ferry service has stumbled from crisis-to-crisis due to a lack of resilience in the system.

It comes as two new ferries being built in Port Glasgow are six years overdue and almost four times over-budget.

The goal of the consultation is to set out a long term plan for the future – of not only the ferries – but other modes of transport for islanders and those who want to come and visit.

It’s also asked whether bridges could be a possible solution.

Long delayed ferry MV Glen Rosa launched at Port GlasgowSTV News

Six large and ten small vessels are set to be welcomed into the fleet over the next few years.

MV Loch Indaal, the second of four CalMac ferries being built in Turkey for Scotland’s west coast routes, will be launched in June ahead of its delivery to Islay and Jura in February 2025.

It comes following the successful launch of MV Isle of Islay in March this year, which is expected to enter service in November 2024.

Meanwhile, the late and over-budget Glen Rosa ferry also entered the water the Ferguson Marine yard in Port Glasgow in April.

The ferry is one of two dual-fuel ships – the other being Glen Sannox – being built at the yard which are some six years late and will cost around three times the original price of £97m.

When complete they will serve routes in the west of Scotland for CalMac.

Two further vessels, which are currently unnamed, are set to be delivered in June and October next year.

PORT GLASGOW, SCOTLAND - FEBRUARY 13: The Glen Sannox ferry departs Ferguson Marine shipyard on its maiden voyage ahead of sea trials on February 13, 2024.Getty Images

Calmac: ‘Our priority is to protect lifeline services’

Robert Morrison, operations director for CalMac, said: “The main vessel serving Cumbrae, MV Loch Shira, is currently off service undergoing extensive ramp repairs and is expected to return in mid-June.

“MV Loch Riddon and MV Isle of Cumbrae, which will be replaced by the larger MV Loch Tarbert [on Thursday], are currently serving the island.

“Our priority is to protect lifeline services and we have worked hard to ensure that a two-vessel service has continued to operate to and from Cumbrae during these technical issues.

“We have also reminded our commercial customers of the weight restriction in place on our vessels, which will help to protect against further damage and help to avoid service disruption in the future.

“Last week, we held a drop-in event on Cumbrae to gather feedback and views from ferry users on the current challenges, and we’ll continue to liaise with the local Ferry User Group.

“We are encouraging visitors to the island to leave their cars behind and travel on foot, if possible, due to the current high service demand. This will help to free up space for residents who require to drive for issues such as urgent medical appointments.

“The spares required for the Loch Shira are being built in Poland. We will continue to try and reduce the delivery time of these and will work with our key suppliers to plan the drydock work to be as efficient as possible.”

A Transport Scotland spokesperson said: “We recognise the impact that delays and disruption have had on our island communities. Regrettably there are communities who have been more greatly impacted than others and Ministers fully recognise the need to improve reliability and confidence in services.

“While vessel deployment is a matter for the operator, we expect CalMac to use their knowledge and expertise to maintain lifeline services during periods of disruption.

“We are committed to investing in our ferry services and that is why delivering six new major vessels to serve Scotland’s ferry network by 2026 is a priority for this government.

“This is not just an issue of transport performance but delivering the confidence needed to sustain island populations.”

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