CalMac’s new ferries for Mull and Islay welcomed by most – but not all

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News of a second-hand ferry for Mull and two new ferries for Islay joining CalMac’s ageing fleet has been broadly welcomed by islanders.

After a ‘long and challenging search’, a second-hand ferry from Norway had been bought for £9 million to run the Oban-Craignure route, bringing benefits to Skye and the Western Isles, the owners of CalMac’s ferries and ports Caledonian Maritime Assets Ltd (CMAL) announced last week.

The MV Utne, a roll-on roll-off passenger and cargo ship built in 2014, is due to start service early next year. The 50m long vessel will accommodate 34 cars and 195 passengers – four times as many as the MV Coruisk. The purchase comes after a summer of cancellations and disruption across the CalMac ferry network due to breakdowns with the ageing ferry fleet.

There was mixed reaction at the recent Mull Community Council’s meeting. Local councillor Mary-Jean Devon said it’s ‘Christmas come early to Mull’: ‘[islanders] will have something they have wanted for a long time: a commutable service,’ she said.

However Joe Reade, chairman of the Mull and Iona Ferry Committee, said: ‘It will not make any difference to our summer timetable or capacity. In fact technically it’s a minor decrease in capacity. The real benefit will come in the winter with a much improved timetable. That is a net positive – but it could have been so much better if only they had gone for the catamaran we were trying to convince them of.’

The committee was campaigning to replace the 32 year-old MV Isle of Mull with a medium-speed catamaran similar to the MV Alfred operating in Orkney, which, it said, are cheaper to build and run than a monohull, needing a third of the crew and fuel: this would lead to more crossings and less congestion, making it easier for islanders to travel when they wanted.

‘This is excellent news for Mull but it is also good news across the network,’ said Comhairle nan Eilean Siar’s chairman of transportation and infrastructure, councillor Uisdean Robertson: ‘The Western Isles will benefit from this development as MV Lord of the Isles will be disentangled from the Armadale service allowing additional service to Lochboisdale and the freedom to develop a timetable that better meets the needs of the Western Isles.

‘It is important that the search for additional tonnage continues to provide the necessary resilience for all services in the CalMac network. Winter resilience will also be improved by the MV Utne as it can serve Mull all winter, meaning the second vessel on that route – MV Isle of Mull – will be available to provide emergency cover across the network should another vessel break down or bad weather leaves a back log of traffic to clear which has been a major issue for Barra in recent winters.’

Highlands and Islands Labour MSP Rhoda Grant said: ‘This is a small step in the right direction and I welcome any move to upgrade our ferry stock but sadly, too much time has passed and the Scottish Government need to do more to make up for that lost time.

‘The Scottish Government need to continue to upgrade our ageing fleet and there needs to be questions answered on the two Ferguson builds as they have taken too long and are well over budget.’

Meanwhile, the Islay Community Council Ferry Committee (ICCFC) was ‘delighted’ by September’s news that CMAL had invited four shipyards to bid to build two new ferries for Islay, with the winning contract due to be announced at the end of March 2022. The two new vessels will have a lower energy requirement and greater vehicle capacity to meet an anticipated increase in passenger demand. The Islay route is also one of the network’s busiest for freight, and the new ferries will be able to operate an overnight freight service.

The ICCFC’s secretary Jim Porteous said it had always hoped for two new ferries, not just one: ‘Apart from providing a better balance at our two island ports, with benefits of interchangeability, the substantial increase in capacity should help to further ‘future proof’ our service for many years ahead. They are being designed specifically around the Islay service and the use of both here will release ‘Finlaggan’ to provide cover that will be much needed elsewhere. There will be some major works required at our ports to accommodate these larger ships and their additional vehicle capacities.’

The construction of the new pier at Tarbert (Harris) Ferry Terminal is reaching the final stages and is set to be completed by the end of the year.

Elsewhere, the new CalMac pier at Tarbert (Harris) Ferry Terminal is nearing completion by the end of the year. CMAL is progressing an ambitious plan of investment in Scotland’s ferries and harbours which is part of a £580m commitment from the Scottish Government over the next five years.