‘Enough is enough’: Coll and Tiree demand end to CalMac ‘disaster’

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Coll and Tiree’s community councils have united to highlight the impacts of CalMac’s ‘disastrous’ ferry service so far in 2022, after only a third of Coll’s sailings, and just seven return trips, were successful in February.

Representatives of the two remote island communities, which have a combined population of 800, say the ‘unreliability’ of their shared ferry service is making life and work ‘unsustainably challenging’ – one businesses has already lost £15,000, and Arinagour Primary School pupils didn’t have heating for three days.

Tiree Community Council convener Dr John Halliday said: ‘It’s not the fault of the teams on the boats or the teams doing their best to move vessels around from route to route. It’s the fault of the Scottish Government. The new ferries promised for next year are ten years too late.’

Coll and Tiree islanders have written to CalMac, MSPs and the Scottish Government to express their anger and frustration.

‘The two islands share one ferry and they have no other ferry route to the mainland. CalMac’s latest route performance data shows that for Coll, only about 33 per cent of sailings in February were successful,’ the community councils said in a joint statement.

‘With a winter timetable giving only five sailings per week to and from Oban, that equated to one to two sailings per week, while Tiree received between two to three sailings per week. The two islands have a combined population of more than 800 people.

‘The current CalMac vessel on the route, MV Lord of the Isles, launched in 1989, has a weight restriction which impacts on the number of vehicles she can carry. She is one of a shrinking number of ships that can serve the two islands.’

Rob Wainwright, convener of Coll Community Council, said: ‘The current unreliability of the ferry service on this route has seen a hugely negative impact on the economy, the provision of all services and ultimately on islanders’ quality of life on Coll and Tiree.

‘With only seven Coll-Oban return trips achieved in February, running a business, let alone trying to live out here is becoming unsustainably challenging.’

The statement included a long list of impacts since January 1. Arinagour Primary School on Coll had no heating oil for three days in March and secondary school pupils, in the absence of both a ferry and the eight-seater scholar flights, have missed three and five days of school on separate occasions.

Food supplies bought by shops have been going out of date and having to be dumped. Farmers were unable to get cattle to the Mull abattoir by February 3 and the next available slot on Mull is not until the end of April. Transport of hay lorries on-island and sheep off-island has been severely disrupted.

One hotel has lost more than £15,000 and the cancellations of professional/trade guests has impacted wider island life. A single ferry cancellation cost a guest house £1,450 in lost income.

One resident missed a long-awaited six-hour medical appointment that will be difficult to re-schedule any time soon. Health and Social Care Partnership personnel travelling to Coll and Tiree have been affected by ferry cancellations and are becoming reluctant to visit in case they get ‘stuck’ on the islands. Thirty-eight bags of mail arrived at the Coll Post Office after a week of ferry cancellations to be handled by one individual.

One resident has not been able to get a space on the ferry for their car which has been stuck in Oban since January 4. A pensioner and a couple stuck in Oban had to pay for a week’s accommodation before managing to get a ferry home.

Islanders have been hiring fishing boats, fast RIBs costing £500+ and even a private plane costing £1,100, for travel to or from the mainland.

Representatives of both communities recently met online with Argyll and Bute MSP Jenni Minto and discussions were also held with CalMac. One of the key points raised with CalMac was whether such a low number of sailings could be said to represent a ‘lifeline service’. It was also pointed out the current crisis was neither new nor wholly attributable to the weather.

Mr Wainwright continued: ‘The ferry provision needs a full rethink, not some sticky plaster measures to get us by. And that needs to happen at both CalMac management level and higher up at Transport Scotland and the Scottish Government. And it needs to happen soon or next year will see a repeat of winter chaos.’

The convener of Tiree Community Council, Dr John Holliday, agreed: ‘If you live on an island like Tiree, you’re used to working around cancelled ferries. But the situation since our main ferry got taken into dry dock after New Year has been something else. I have businesses telling me they have lost thousands of pounds. The Tiree Trust can’t get their community turbine up and running again. It’s been a disaster.’

He pointed out Tiree is almost a four-hour ferry trip from the mainland and that the piers on Tiree and Coll are arguably the most exposed in Scotland. For a service to succeed, powerful boats are needed to get alongside in the face of a big Atlantic swell.

He concluded: ‘Our main challenge on Tiree, and doubtless on Coll, is retaining population. When you look at the three months we’ve just had, you can understand when people say enough is enough.’

The MV Lord of the Isles (LOTI) is on the Coll-Tiree route pending the return of the usual vessel, MV Clansman, after an extended stay in dry. The deployment of MV LOTI on the route means South Uist has been without a dedicated ferry service.

The MV Isle of Arran and MV Hebridean Isles are no longer being used by CalMac on the Coll-Tiree route due to age and handling capabilities. The MV Isle of Lewis – on the Barra route – is too big to call in at Coll or Tiree.

The MV Isle of Mull – on the Craignure route – has been the only vessel capable of helping over the last three months and her occasional removal from her own run has impacted on the Mull community.

Robbie Drummond, managing director of CalMac, said: ‘We are extremely sorry about the impact that disruption is having on our customers and communities.

‘Without doubt, this has been an awful period for them, with extreme and unprecedented weather conditions affecting services across the network. We have experienced more weather disruptions in the first seven weeks of 2022 than during the whole of 2012.

‘This has been compounded by technical faults, delays on our annual overhaul programme, and the ongoing effect of Covid19 on our colleagues – cases have doubled in the past 10 days to over 80 staff isolating and still growing. We are very sorry for the impact this has had on all those affected.

‘We recently commenced a review of our scheduled overhaul relief plans for Winter 2022/23 to determine whether there are alternative vessel options that could provide a more resilient service for the Coll and Tiree communities.

‘This is becoming more challenging as our vessels face longer periods in dry dock to complete unplanned maintenance work. However, we fully appreciate how critical the service is to sustainable island life and are exploring further options to deliver a more resilient service during the overhaul period. Once we have a clear view of our plans we will communicate these back to the community.

‘With our priority focused on maintaining lifeline services across the network, and constraints around port and vessel suitability, we have limited options when deploying relief vessels, especially on an unplanned basis. Unfortunately, this will sometimes mean we will have to deploy a less suitable vessel, but this will always be a last resort to maintain a lifeline service to all communities.

‘While this is a challenging time, our team understands deeply how much our customers rely on ferry services. Their knowledge of how disruptions effect day to day life and livelihoods is at the centre of every decision we make. Ensuring ferries are working as they should be and limiting the impact of all the factors involved as far as we possibly can is our priority during this difficult period. Over 70 per cent of our staff live and work in our community and everyone at CalMac cares deeply about the service.’

Argyll and Bute MP Brendan O’Hara said: ‘I have enormous sympathy for the residents of Coll and Tiree who have been impacted by continued ferry cancellations over the past few months. These communities deserve better, and I know this disruption and uncertainty is impacting on islanders’ livelihoods.

‘Argyll & Bute is losing people and we have to reverse that trend, but as I have said consistently, we will struggle to repopulate our island and rural communities until we have reliable and resilient physical and digital connectivity in place.

‘I have written to Transport Scotland and the Cabinet Secretary for Transport to ask that they meet with myself and the communities of Coll and Tiree before next winter, to discuss this issue so that such a situation can be avoided in the future.’

A Transport Scotland spokesperson said: ‘The Minister for Transport recently met CalMac to ensure the operator is exploring all possible options to improve services and to urge them to continue to work with CMAL to explore the possibility of sourcing additional ferries for the network. Operators are best-placed to balance the needs of communities across the network – ensuring island connectivity is maintained, while meeting legal requirements for vessels.

‘During any disruptions CalMac will prioritise sailings to ensure delivery of essential supplies and export of island products, supporting island and remote economies. Where possible they will run replacement or additional sailings.

‘Ministers fully recognise the need to address delays in investment in ferry infrastructure which is why they have committed to the £580 million in the Infrastructure Investment Plan. However, it is clear that winter weather, combined with the pandemic and its impact on staff, have increasingly impacted on CalMac’s fleet this year – in ways never previously witnessed.

‘Having confidence in ferry services can impact upon people’s decision on whether to live and work on the islands, and impacts upon the sustainability of the island communities themselves. These human impacts are at the heart of Scottish Ministers’ commitment to supporting lifeline services through continued investment in ferry services across Scotland.’