Group blasts CalMac in letter to Transport Scotland

Sara Bain

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Operators of a troubled ferry route have been accused of delivering a ‘fairy story of political spin and blatant inaccuracy’.
In the wake of CalMac Ferries Ltd’s announcement of its new summer timetable earlier this month, Sleat Transport Forum says it was ‘astounded’ at what was likely to be ‘another summer of unacceptable service on the Mallaig-Armadale route’.
But Transport Scotland says it and ferry operators CalMac are doing their best to provide additional capacity, frequency and improved reliability on the route.
The service came under fire last year when the MV Coruisk, which had operated successfully between Mallaig and Armadale for 12 years, was re-deployed to serve the Oban to Craignure route.
CalMac replaced the one-vessel Mallaig to Armadale service with three vessels. Two of the vessels deployed, however, were not designed for the route and by the end of the season almost 400 services had been cancelled.
CalMac says its 2017 summer timetable will increase capacity on the service by operating two ferries – The MV Lord of the Isles and MV Loch Fyne – which will replace last year’s three-vessel service. But Sleat Transport Forum has blasted the move saying Drew Collier, CalMac operations director, failed to mention ‘the tens of thousands of travellers whose journeys were affected last year which has resulted in a dramatic loss of confidence in the route’.
In a letter to Graham Laidlaw, Transport Scotland’s head of ferries, Rob Ware, forum secretary, said: ‘Mr Collier fails to mention the 350 less coaches on the route in 2016 than 2015, a staggering drop of 15 per cent, and with a nine per cent increase with the MV Coruisk in 2015 than 2014, this represents a swing of 24 per cent in coach traffic over two summers.’
Mr Ware said that what should have been a ‘celebration of growth with the introduction of RET proved to be a public relations fiasco’. He added that attempts by the forum to ask for the costs of operating the route in 2015 as against 2016 have been refused under Freedom of Information exemption.
In reply to the forum’s concerns, Mr Laidlaw added: ‘Spring tides remain an issue in the timetable and, for the first two weeks of the summer, service will be noticeably variable. While that is unavoidable, customers are being provided with advance notice and can plan around that.’
But Mr Ware claims analysis by the forum suggests that, with a tidal timetable on the route, there are days where there are significantly less than nine sailings and on some days only five are scheduled.
He predicts that, under the new timetable, almost 40 per cent of this year’s summer service across the Sound of Sleat will be affected by changes to the schedule due to low tidal conditions. Mr Ware said: ‘On an optimum week, there are planned to be 120 sailings in total for the Mallaig to Armadale route, with the combination of Lord of the Isles and Loch Fyne. However, with the requirement to make tidal changes on 79 out of the 206 sailing days, some weeks have as few as 92-95 sailings, a significant reduction and some of these occur in the peak holiday season.
‘The forum and our colleagues across the Sound of Sleat made it abundantly clear that, from a customer’s perspective, a tidal timetable would be totally unacceptable in 2017.
‘With the deployment of the MV Loch Fyne, the timetable has had to be revised to allow for the tides which results in some days having no services between Mallaig and Armadale for more than five hours. In the reverse direction, there are days when there is a six-hour gap between sailings. The forum predicts further disruption will occur where tides are lower than expected.’
CalMac and Transport Scotland say they will continue to monitor the service over the summer and urged interested parties to support the service.
Mr Laidlaw said: ‘CalMac has offered assistance to the Sleat community with marketing and other promotional activity to encourage more people to come to the area and reassure them that the Mallaig to Armadale ferry route is open for business.
‘I urge the Sleat community to take up that offer from CalMac and work with them.’