The prospect of a long-term loss of ferry service to the Western Isles at least for the remainder of April – and in all likelihood into May – while MV Loch Seaforth is out of service, will be yet another major economic impact on the Western Isles. Removal of the vessel from the fleet means capacity is reduced from the Butt to Barra.
The issue is not a new one with Calmac services plagued by technical failures across their ageing fleet and even the newest major vessel is clearly not immune from this. It is therefore clear that lessons are not learned or if they are, they are ignored altogether by those tasked with having responsibility for ferry services. Failures in decision making around fleet renewal and vessel replacement are compounded by the unwillingness to listen to the communities themselves.
The people of the Western Isles told Transport Scotland, CMAL and Calmac that the preference was a 2-ferry solution on the Stornoway to Ullapool route to protect against the inevitable breakdown of a single vessel. An opportunity that would have increased travel options as well as insulating against technical issues in the fleet. Instead, a single big ferry was provided with fewer passenger sailings in the timetable than before her arrival when a dedicated freighter took the overnight strain. Again, before the debacle of vessel 802 began with the calamitous decision to maintain a single shared vessel for Uist and Harris communities were clear in their desire for a dedicated ferry on each route across the Little Minch.
Lochboisdale is reliant upon MV Lord of the Isles which they share with Skye and whose performance is hampered by her 32 years in service and is often the first port of call when Calmac need to displace vessels to cover other routes.
The relocation of MV Isle of Lewis to Barra gave a much better timetable but the vessel is clearly not suited to the rigours of that crossing which would be better served by a dedicated ferry purpose built for the route. Instead, there is little sign that any thought is given to this route as on paper capacity seems to be adequate on the route regardless of whether Barra is increasingly hamstrung by poor reliability and the relocation of their vessel when she is called to serve elsewhere.
With a catalogue of poor decision making around ferry services compounding the lack of investment in new ferries it is noteworthy that no individual whether that be political or in the management of Calmac, CMAL or Transport Scotland have been held accountable for the catalogue of failures that have been visited on island areas.
The Comhairle’s Chairman of Transport and Infrastructure, Cllr Uisdean Robertson, suggests: “The issues affecting the Western Isles as a result of the unfortunate engine failure of Loch Seaforth could have been less severe had the wishes of island communities been listened to and had any lessons been learned from past failures such as the 2018 loss of MV Clansman over that Easter period. There are steps available to Transport Scotland. In the short term MV Pentalina should be chartered to provide the overnight freight service to Stornoway with the Isle of Lewis making up for lost capacity by sailing three times a day in the daytime.
Once Loch Seaforth returns Pentalina should be retained for the Mull route leaving MV Isle of Mull as second ship on the route and available to cover other routes in the event of technical problems elsewhere on the network. The opportunity of the new Catamaran that has been identified by Mull Ferry Committee should be grasped. As no one has been held to account for past failures the Comhairle is looking to prospective Parliamentary candidates in all the island constituencies to support this short-term measure and ensure Government’s agencies are required by Parliament to step up.”