Backlash halts ferry service cut

CalMac's Isle of Mull returns to Oban. Photograph: Philip Hatfield

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Transport Scotland has stepped back from reducing local winter ferry services after a backlash from island communities.

The Mull and Iona Ferry Committee (MIFC) has welcomed the decision and said ‘all of the Hebridean islands’ had resisted recent moves by the government’s transport agency to consider scaling back services in light of the ongoing pandemic.

MIFC said the move could have reduced three return sailings per week between Craignure and Oban, along with 18 returns between Iona and Fionnphort. Services between Fishnish and Lochaline could also have been reduced with ‘no indication’ of how long it could last for, said the MIFC.

‘We are on the downward slope of coronavirus prevalence, with vaccinations being delivered at pace and easing of restrictions on the near horizon. There is no logic to service reduction at this late phase of the pandemic,’ said the MIFC in a statement.

Comhairle nan Eilean Siar, the Western Isles Council, was among the hardest-hitting critics of the idea.

It claimed Transport Scotland had tabled a service reduction on ‘spurious grounds’ of reducing unnecessary interactions between customers, vessel crews and port staff, as well as helping reduce the risk of Covid transmission to the islands.

Comhairle nan Eilean Siar said ferry service reliability was ‘so poor’ that interaction between passengers and crews is already ‘much reduced’, with services also disrupted by weather and technical failures.

Councillor Uisdean Robertson, chairperson of transportation, said any reduction could have a ‘calamitous impact’ on the seafood and tourism sectors.

The Comhairle nan Eilean Siar said there had been ‘considerable and damaging’ service failures this winter, particularly in Uist and Barra, ‘which are only partly attributable to weather’.

‘The Comhairle considers that, rather than reducing services, Transport Scotland should instruct CalMac to find greater flexibility within its fleet, assisting the company whenever possible through the purchase or leasing of other vessels, some of which are available elsewhere in Scotland,’ said Mr Robertson.

In response, Transport Scotland said there are ‘no plans’ to reduce services unless the demand from communities was there.

It said ferry services had been under review in light of the ongoing pandemic.

Transport Scotland said in a statement: ‘We have been working with CalMac throughout all phases of lockdown to continuously review whether services are running at the appropriate levels, in light of the current low levels of demand and ongoing travel restrictions.

‘There are no plans to reduce services from current levels unless communities want us to and we will be engaging with local authorities, Regional Transport Partnerships and tourism bodies to discuss their feedback.’

The current winter timetable due to end on March 25 will continue until April 25 with a review of timetables expected in mid-March.

Just last month, transport union TSSA – involved in a pay dispute with CalMac – said the company was ‘wasting fuel and damaging the environment by running empty ferries’.

Manuel Cortes, TSSA general secretary, said at the time: ‘We know these ferries are a lifeline service and some must continue to run to the islands.

‘But tourists aren’t travelling because of the lockdown and as a result, demand has sharply dropped. ScotRail has cut back its timetable and CalMac should do likewise.’