Comhairle Responds to CHFS Debundling Suggestion

Comhairle nan Eilean Siar have responded to the article that was published in The Herald over the weekend that suggested the de-bundling of Clyde and Hebrides Ferry Services might be an option consulted on in the coming months.  It is understood that this option will be included in the options published through the review Transport Scotland have commissioned from Ernst and Young on the governance and contracting arrangements that shape Government funded ferry services.

Where in the past, sections of our community have been extremely concerned at any suggestion to break up the Clyde and Hebrides network, it has been of equal concern in recent years that the views of island communities are not listened to by any of the central belt headquartered bodies which are responsible for our ferry service provision.  This is evident in the decisions that have been taken to reduce capacity by limiting the use of the Mezzanine deck on MV Hebrides and the continued absence of any islanders on the Boards of Calmac or CMAL.  With this in mind a healthy discussion on options for delivering a better ferry service to our islands and ensuring that island needs are placed front and centre with economic benefits maximised for islands would be a welcome step in the right direction.

While the case will be made for retention of the existing Clyde and Hebrides ferry service bundle with a proper consideration of the strengths and benefits that brings, this should not preclude other options being looked at and the merits of these being tested against the large single bundle.

Comhairle nan Eilean Siar has noted the recent announcement of a new contract on ferry services to the Lofoten islands in northern Norway.  From October 2025 two new hydrogen fuelled ferries capable of carrying 120 cars and 599 passengers will join the existing two ferries (which are to be converted from LNG to bio-fuel) to operate the 100km open ocean crossing above the Arctic Circle.  The annual cost for this to the Norwegian Public Roads Administration will be approximately £27.6M per annum.  This cost includes all crewing costs and management functions.

With RET fares making it easy to calculate charges and distribute funds for individual bookings it should be perfectly feasible to maintain the Caledonian MacBrayne brand on the ferries that serve the Clyde and Hebrides and market the services through a single website.  This can be specified by the contracting body whether there is a single bundle, 2 bundles or 3 bundles.

It is worth noting that a Western Isles ferry bundle would be larger than the current arrangements for the Northern Isles Ferry Services Contract which seems to work well for Orkney and Shetland.  If a Western Isles bundle was tendered in the future this could specify similar ferries to those being developed in Norway with Hydrogen fuel supplied from renewable energy generated in the Western Isles.  Six large ferries with 2 deployed to serve Stornoway and a dedicated ferry on the routes from Tarbert, Lochmaddy, Lochboisdale and Castlebay plus 2 smaller ferries to serve the Sound of Harris and Sound of Barra would represent a step change in connectivity for the Western Isles. Dedicated ferries would provide greater capacity and frequency in normal times and resilience will improve with the ability to cover any breakdown or dry dock maintenance within this network. This will be a step forward from current practice where cancelling the Lochboisdale service seems to be Calmac’s go to position as soon as there is a need to cover a breakdown in operations in other areas or when Covid stretches manning on other vessels as we have seen in recent weeks. The operations and management of this bundle would be based within the Western Isles and there would be an increased focus on recruiting crew locally. The Board of Directors could be made up of people who live and work in the Western Isles.  This already happens for the board of Orkney Ferries which operates the internal ferries within Orkney and there is the same competence and experience present in the Western Isles to do the same.

Chair of Transportation, Cllr Uisdean Robertson said, “The suggestion of de-bundling Calmac always creates uncertainty. In the past we have been urged to Keep Calmac and Carry On and people across the Western Isles have supported the single bundle.  However, we must recognise that the way services have been delivered has been remote from our islands and often decisions are imposed on us against our will with damaging consequences on our people and businesses. One only needs to look at the removal of Mezzanine deck capacity on MV Hebrides this summer or the lack of resistance put up by our lifeline ferry service provider to the closure of Uig for 5 months and the casual way it is proposed to remove a service to Tarbert throughout this closure.  Would this happen if services were managed and delivered from the Western Isles?  I don’t think it would. A consultation on a change in how ferry services are delivered allows a healthy debate and if this leads to more local accountability and service delivery that places island needs first that can only be a good conversation to have.”