Top level talks over ferry woes

MV Loch Seaforth

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Dissatisfaction with ferry services is growing with community-led groups and opposition politicians ramping up the pressure following the Holyrood elections.

Since the return of the SNP to power in May, there have been calls for fresh attention from new transport minister Graeme Dey as frustrations continue on the islands over vessel unavailability, a lack of resilience in poor weather and a pressing need for costly new infrastructure.

The stop-start problems this year with CalMac’s largest ferry, the MV Loch Seaforth, has highlighted the shortcomings of the fleet with its long-delayed return to the Stornoway-Ullapool route hit by successive setbacks.

The independent 13-member CalMac Community Board has now held talks with senior representatives from Transport Scotland, CMAL and CalMac.

The community board, whose members range from Kintyre to Lewis, Harris, Skye, Coll, Tiree, Lismore, Barra and Skye, among others, have called for sight of ‘short- to medium-term plans’ to address the ‘critical situation’.

Lewis-based community board chairman Angus Campbell said: ‘The community board is calling for immediate action to address the failure in services to our islands both in the short term but also urgently bringing forward new investment plans for the fleet.

‘These are not new questions from our communities, but a coherent strategy is needed now to respond to these issues and prevent further social and economic damage to our
islands,’ he said.

Meanwhile, Highlands and Islands MSP Donald Cameron has backed calls by Stornoway-based haulier DR Macleod for ‘radical action’ to overhaul the CalMac fleet.

Chief executive Donald Macleod claimed the current unreliability of the fleet was ‘killing business’ on the Western Isles.

Mr Cameron, an opposition Conservative MSP, said communities were ‘close to despair’ and called for the government to ‘get on top’ of the situation.

He said: ‘This is costing jobs and livelihoods and putting at risk our economic recovery from the Covid pandemic.’

But Jenni Minto, the newly-elected SNP MSP for Argyll and Bute, has moved to provide reassurances.

She said she and fellow SNP MSPs Kenneth Gibson and Alasdair Allan have held ‘constructive’ talks with Mr Dey, who has picked up the transport brief.

She said: ‘I am really grateful to the minister for meeting with me so soon after being appointed to his new post.

‘It provided me with an opportunity to highlight some of the key issues facing those living in communities dependent on the lifeline services provided by CalMac.

A Transport Scotland spokesman said Mr Dey understood the issues and is taking them seriously.

They said: ‘We recognise communities’ frustration at the current disruption and the impact it is having. We are doing everything we can, supporting CalMac to maximise available capacity across the network and to ensure the timely resolution of these issues.

‘We are also delivering new tonnage to support our communities and working with CMAL, CalMac, MSPs, community representatives and others to develop investment programmes for major vessels and small vessels – investing at least £580 million over the next five years.

‘In relation to short-term issues, we are actively exploring opportunities for chartering additional tonnage, including consideration of the suitability of the MV Pentalina and looking at other credible, affordable and viable options to improve resilience.’