CalMac left high and dry as catamaran deal is scuppered

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News that Pentland Ferries have pulled out of talks with CalMac about a chartered catamaran that would have provided a commuter service between Mull and Oban is disappointing, says island councillor Mary-Jean Devon.

Talks appeared to be at an advanced stage for the deployment of the MV Pentalina to provide additional resilience to the west coast ferry network, including an extra twice-daily service to Mull ideal for workers, but on Tuesday Pentland Ferries announced ‘with much regret’ it was withdrawing.

It is not known if a row last week, which saw the MV Pentalina fail a safety inspection, carried out by the Maritime and Coastguard Agency at the request of the Scottish ferries union RMT, had any bearing on the decision.

Councillor Devon said: ‘It’s disappointing because it would have given us a commutable service.’

Pentland Ferries managing director Andrew Banks said the vessel was safe and suitable for service but issues outwith its control were likely to arise over the lifespan of the contract to threaten commercial viability.

The MV Pentalina had already carried out sea trials across the West Coast and, while there were limitations, it was found the vessel could operate on the Oban-Craignure, Ardrossan-Brodick and Ulapool-Stornoway routes.

Mr Banks said: ‘While we were very much looking forward to working with CalMac Ferries to help provide a solution to the challenges being faced by the island communities on the west coast of Scotland, it has become clear that issues outwith our control are likely to arise over the lifespan of the contract to threaten the commercial viability. Unfortunately these issues, which fundamentally stem from the very different status of a public-funded service compared to a small private operator such as ourselves, have given us no alternative but to withdraw from the discussions.

‘I would like to stress that the talks with CalMac Ferries were positive and constructive, and the vessel herself is safe and very suitable for service on the West Coast. However, our priority has to be to the continued viability of Pentland Ferries, and to our employees and passengers. We cannot commit to a scenario whereby external factors have the potential to cause severe risk and reputational damage to the business that we have worked so hard to build, and unfortunately we have therefore let CalMac know of our decision.’

Robbie Drummond, managing director at CalMac, said: ‘CalMac has been investigating the use of the MV Pentalina to provide additional resilience to our network. Berthing trials had shown she could successfully operate services to Arran and Mull and we were looking forward to her deployment. Unfortunately, Pentland Ferries have decided not to enter into a charter agreement for the use of the MV Pentalina on our network.

‘We are surprised and disappointed by this unexpected news. However, this was entirely a decision for Pentland Ferries in relation to the use of its vessel. We will continue to work closely with Transport Scotland and Pentland Ferries and should they revisit that decision and make the vessel available to us at a future date, we would consider this option again.

‘Whilst disappointing, we were able to develop an understanding of where the vessel could be used and where there would be limitations as a result of the berthing trials and operational issues with the vessels single-ended design.

‘I know this news will also come as a great disappointment to our communities particularly those we had been discussing the detailed options with.  I thank them for their patience and support as we continue to search for suitable alternatives available for charter to enhance capacity and resilience within our network.’

RMT general secretary Mick Lynch said: ‘This vessel had been declared fit for relief service on four CalMac routes by the MCA before the RMT’s intervention. We need an inquiry into how the Scottish Government’s ferry procurement strategy has exposed crew and passengers to this unacceptable level of risk.’

The RMT raised safety concerns with the MCA’s chief executive Brian Johnson on June 15. He replied: ‘An MCA Surveyor has visited the vessel [MV Pentalina] to undertake an inspection of the area of concern. During this visit discrepancies were uncovered with respect to structural fire protection in way of the passenger accommodation and the corridor providing access to the crew accommodation and Galley Servery.

‘The local marine office is working closely with the operator to agree a solution to the area concerned. The vessel remains out of commercial service at this time.’