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Comhairle nan Eilean Siar has written to First Minister Nicola Sturgeon urging the government to prioritise lifeline ferry services to the islands.
To offer strategic direction for CalMac Ferries Ltd’s services, the letter from Comhairle leader Councillor Roddie Mackay and chairman of Transportation and Infrastructure Councillor Uisdean Robertson requests that a number of measures be taken forward on the basis of a manifesto for change.
Until 2022, these include chartering MV Pentalina to operate the Craignure to Oban service and releasing MV Coruisk to providing the service from Mallaig – Armadale.
This, they say, will free up MV Lord of the Isles to provide a dedicated service to South Uist that connects better with rail services to Glasgow and increases frequency across the week.
The two councillors say these solutions can be delivered within four to five weeks of a charter agreement being reached.
Another short-term measure would be to charter a freighter to provide the overnight freight service to Stornoway, releasing MV Loch Seaforth to operate three return services each day – which they claim also can be delivered within a four-to-five-week timeframe.
They have suggested the frequency of late Friday evening sailings between Lochmaddy and Uig should be increased for the entire peak season timetable.
These should also be marketed to freight traffic at the same 10 per cent discount as the freight sailing from Stornoway to Ullapool.
The councillors also want ministers to approve the purchase of the new catamaran identified by Mull and Iona Ferry Committee to provide a long term solution to the Mull service, ensuring MV Lord of the Isles remains dedicated to South Uist – a solution which they claim can be delivered by 2022.
And the final short-term measure they would like to see is the deployment of MV Loch Bhrusda as second ferry on the Sound of Harris service from July to October.
As far as medium-term solutions are concerned – from 2023 to 2028 – the councillors ask that, with the delivery of vessel 802 into service, a dedicated vessel should be provided on each Little Minch crossing.
The North Uist service should also be operated by an open deck ferry suitable for the busy freight flow on that route.
The shared vessel operation could be reinstated during winter months freeing the Harris ferry to provide drydock relief cover throughout the network.
This solution is subject to delivery by Ferguson (Port Glasgow Ltd) of the 802 by early in 2023.
The MV Lord of the Isles should also be replaced, say Councillors Makay and Robertson, as it has been in service since 1989, and a new ferry purpose-built for the Lochboisdale service.
This, they say, is a solution which can be delivered – based on timescales for the new Islay ferry – by 2024.
They also want to replace MV Isle of Lewis, which has been in service since 1995, with a new ferry of open-deck design on the Barra service – a solution which would need network re-deployment in 2023 with the arrival of new vessels elsewhere or by 2025, if the vessel was to be replaced after 30 years in service.
They also call for the MV Loch Alainn to be replaced by 2027, when she would be 30 years old, with a larger, open water design ferry and for MV Loch Portain to be replaced by 2026 on the Sound of Harris service also with a new ferry(ies) of open water design.
The letter also stated that a meeting with the comhairle should be a priority for whichever minister will be responsible for ferry services – either Mairi Gougeon as minister for rural affairs and islands or Michael Matheson as minister for net zero, energy and transport.