Mull faces winter of discontent over fewer ferries

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Calls are growing for Holyrood to fund extra ferry crossings to Mull in the winter to stop major employers leaving the island.

CalMac switches from its summer to winter timetable on Monday October 22, halving the number of return sailings between Oban and Craignure to 35 per week.

‘We are the only near island that does not have a 12-month access to the mainland for a whole day,’ Mull and Iona Ferry Committee chairperson Elizabeth Ferguson said. ‘We cannot get to Oban before 10am. We have to be back in Oban to get the 4pm boat.’

The committee met stakeholders over many months to find a way to run earlier and later winter ferry crossings.

Ms Ferguson explained: ‘We understand from Transport Scotland there is no more money in the pot. We can only have the same amount of sailings. We rejigged the timetable to have 35 sailings, but satisfied the island’s needs. We did somebody else’s job. It was a very complicated jigsaw, but we cracked it.’

A CalMac spokesperson said one option to move sailings from the middle of the day to earlier and later had been rejected, because it restricted movement for people living on Iona.

A second option is to moor the ferry overnight in Oban, which increases the number of return crossings to 39 per week, but incurs more costs for extra crew, fuel and berthing charges, and sometimes it would cross ‘empty’.

A third option is to moor overnight at Craignure, which sticks to 35 returns and allows early and late sailings from Mull, but first CalMac needs Argyll and Bute Council to make Craignure pier safe for this – and the council does not have the £1.5 million required.

‘We have got another deadlock,’ Ms Ferguson said. ‘The pier is at the end of its useful life. They are now looking to build a new pier, but that is eight years away. We cannot wait eight years. We are not going to live a normal life.’

She said Mull has a ‘desperate need’ for GPs and had two applicants lined up, but when they realised they could not commute in the winter, they pulled out. Healthcare workers living in Ardnamurchan face a 140-mile round trip to get to work in Oban, she added, and islanders with medical appointments in Glasgow have to spend two nights on the mainland.

TSL Contractors, one of Mull’s biggest employers with 125 staff, may be forced to move its head office due to the reduced timetable. Its managing director Andy Knight is quoted saying ‘living and working on Mull in this manner is unsustainable’.

Inverlussa Marine Services, which runs a mussel farm in Loch Spelve and employs 25 people from Mull, said the winter reduction puts it ‘at a disadvantage’.

Managing director Ben Wilson said: ‘We are needing to get product on the mainland as early as we can in the day. We are competing with other companies on the mainland. It is becoming more difficult for us to justify running this business from Mull.’

Mr Wilson said Inverlussa could not continue on Mull another winter after this one. Moving would not lose any jobs, he added, but future jobs would have to be filled from the mainland rather than Mull. ‘Everything changes in life, apart from the winter timetable,’ Mr Wilson said. ‘It is holding everyone back.

‘It can be solved by the council, Transport Scotland and CalMac working together. We need the Scottish Government to step in – £600,000 a year would resolve this problem, as that would pay for the vessel to return to Oban each night, to get the first and late run in. Or the council does a small amount of upgrading to Craignure pier.’