‘Chaos’ engulfs CalMac

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CalMac hit the rocks this week, as a perfect storm of over-runs, breakdowns and bad weather struck its ageing fleet, leading to island food shortages, and SNP demands for four new ferries – not two – plus the purchase of the MV Pentalina for Mull as a stop-gap.

This week CalMac’s network was four vessels short, with three in dry dock, and the critical MV Hebrides, which serves Uig/Skye, Lochmaddy/North Uist and Tarbert/Harris, out of action with engine trouble until Sunday February 13.

Shops in some islands were reporting shortages of fresh produce due to ferry cancellations, said Na h-Eileanan an Iar Alasdair Allan on Thursday, with no guarantee when normal service would resume.

In response, CalMac is prioritising lifeline freight and passengers on Friday’s and Saturday’s sailings between Oban and Castlebay/Barra and Lochboisdale/South Uist.
On top of this, bad weather delayed and cancelled Friday’s sailings from Oban to Craignure/Mull, Oban to Coll and Tiree, and Ullapool to Stornoway/Lewis. Friday’s Oban-Colonsay-Port Askaig-Kennacraig route was also cancelled.

Robbie Drummond, managing director of CalMac, said: ‘Some of our vessels need urgent repairs which are being prioritised by engineers and others are delayed in annual overhaul. For example, a substantial amount of emergent steelwork was discovered on MV Clansman in dry dock, and this has delayed her return by three weeks.

‘MV Hebrides is set to return to service on Monday, the required parts are arriving today and tomorrow, and engineers will carry out the necessary repairs over the weekend.

‘Our masters have reported conditions the likes of which we have not experienced for many years. At times, this has made sailings impossible.

‘It is very upsetting that some communities have been without a ferry service for several days. MV Lord of the Isles successfully berthed in Tiree on Thursday night, following many days of unsuccessful attempts due to continuing and exceptionally high sea swell conditions. This morning we were also able to successfully berth in Coll for the first time in a week.’

After speaking with concerned constituents, Dr Allan said: ‘This is a completely unacceptable situation for our islands, and the longer we need to keep waiting for new vessels, the more detrimental the impact on island residents and businesses becomes.

‘While the weather conditions are not the fault of CalMac, this situation once again calls into question the fleet’s resilience. Local shops should not be having to put up with absorbing significant financial losses as fresh produce goes to waste due to it being unable to reach its destination on time.

‘Disruption on this scale represents a real threat to the livelihoods of island residents, further making the case for there to be more vessels in the CalMac fleet, and for additional ferries secured as soon as possible to act as relief vessels.’

It also emerged the two new CalMac ferries being built at Port Glasgow’s nationalised Ferguson Marine shipyard are facing further delays because hundreds of electrical cables have been wrongly installed. The MV Glen Sannox and Hull 802, which will serve the Arran and Skye/Outer Hebrides routes respectively, are already running four years late and double the £97million budget.

Scottish Labour’s Transport spokesperson Neil Bibby described it as ‘another humiliating chapter’ in an ‘endless fiasco’. During First Minister’s Questions, Nicola Sturgeon said the error stemmed from before the yard was taken into public ownership.

With islands at ‘crisis point’, the Comhairle nan Eilean Siar (Western Isles Council) called for ‘urgent action’ from CalMac and Scottish Government. The two delayed ferries being built by Ferguson, plus Islay’s two new ferries, designed to fit nearly every harbour on the network, ‘will not be enough to address the existing renewal needs of the CalMac ferries fleet’, the Comhairle said.

‘To provide short-term relief an opportunity exists for Government to purchase MV Pentalina which could enter service immediately to either Arran or Mull and allow redeployment of another ferry to shore up the delivery of services across the network.

‘The Government also needs to increase the planned order of the new Islay ferries from the planned two to at least four ferries. This action would go a long way to resetting the decades of under-investment in ferries and give island communities genuine confidence that the Government will support their economic recovery from the most challenging period in living memory.’

‘We need more ferries,’ agreed Na h-Eileanan an Iar’s MP Angus MacNeil, urging Transport Scotland to approach shipyards in Poland and Germany. The two new Islay ferries will not be made in Scotland, after four shipyards from Romania, Poland and Turkey were invited to tender for the contract. A decision will be made in March 2022.

‘The Pentalina meantime would look like a stop gap if it is fully seaworthy and there are no problems with it,’ Mr MacNeil said. The SNP MP from Barra then criticised his own party’s former transport minister Graeme Dey, who resigned in January for health reasons, for letting the new CalMac Board sit without a single islander on it. He suggested the Comhairle’s leader and transport chairman be entrusted with the roles.

This week the Comhairle unanimously supported a motion expressing disappointment at the lack of island based members appointed to the CalMac Board, and supported a call for a review of the appointments process.

‘The previous Transport Minister was obviously wrong in his decision,’ Mr MacNeil said, ‘and hopefully the current Transport Minister will bring about change, then we might not have four ferries out of action at the same time.’

But he accused the Comhairle of  ‘the greatest piece of vandalism to island transportation in decades’ by cutting inter-island flights, which, he said, ‘ironically placed extra burdens on ferries’.

‘The Comhairle pocketed that transportation money without a thought or care for islanders, especially those needing hospital appointments,’ he said. ‘If they lived up to their responsibilities it would add greater weight to their worthy call today.’

Highlands and Islands Conservative MSP Donald Cameron called on Mr MacNeil to apologise for his ‘offensive’ and ‘ill-considered’ comments. ‘It is extremely ill-advised for a politician from a party that has failed his constituency so abysmally on ferries, to make an attack of this kind,’ Mr Cameron said.

‘It must have escaped his notice that the Comhairle has been put in an extremely difficult position by having its funding repeatedly cut in real terms by the SNP Government over recent years.’