Islands urge ferry ticket fix

The MV Isle of Arran tied up in Brodick.

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Islanders have united in calling for an overhaul of CalMac’s ‘prejudicial’ ticket system, saying it treats them as ‘second-class passengers’ on their ‘own lifeline service’.

Surveys on Mull, Iona, Arran and Coll have found ‘overwhelming support’ for changing the ‘first-come-first-served’ system for booking vehicle space on CalMac ferries, which ‘prioritises tourists over islanders’. It is proving a ‘serious problem’ on Tiree too, where ’40 per cent’ of houses are holiday homes.

‘Selling tickets on a first-come-first-served basis effectively means the further ahead you can plan your journey, the more likely you are to be given a space,’ said chairman of Mull and Iona Ferry Committee (MIFC) Joe Reade.

‘This means that tourists, who plan their journeys weeks or months ahead, are prioritised before islanders who cannot plan every shopping trip or family visit so far ahead of time. Islanders find themselves trapped during the summer months, unable to get a vehicle ticket because they’ve all been sold to tourists.

‘This prejudicial system is no longer acceptable. We are treated as second-class passengers on our own lifeline service. Often the trips with shortest notice are the most important – hospital visits, funerals and livestock movements, for example.

‘All too often islanders can’t make those essential trips because the ferry is full of motorhomes and holiday makers.’

Several people surveyed said the issue was so impactful they are contemplating leaving their island.

MIFC teamed up with Arran Ferry Action Group to poll their island communities on an alternative system, used on the Danish island of Samso, which they say would be ‘much fairer’.

‘Like Mull and Arran, Samso is a popular tourist destination where if unchecked, tourist demand would prevent islanders accessing the ferry when they need to,’ said MIFC. ‘The Samso ferry company operates two booking lists – one for islanders and one for everyone else.

‘Islanders have an account card that gives them access to space reserved on each sailing exclusively for them. Car deck space reserved for islanders cannot be pre-sold to visitors. The amount of space reserved for islanders is adjusted on a dynamic sailing-by-sailing basis, using ticket sales data to predict how many car spaces will need to be reserved for islanders on a particular sailing.

‘The response from Mull, Iona and Arran communities was overwhelmingly positive. Approximately 30 per cent of the adult population on each island took part in the surveys and 95 to 96 per cent supported the proposal.’

‘We need to learn from established best practice elsewhere to make access to our ferry system fairer,’ added Sam Bourne of Arran Ferry Action Group.

‘It should not be too much to ask of our ferry service that those who rely on it as a lifeline are able to use it when they need it. Given there is insufficient current capacity to meet the growing demand, a system that ensures more balanced access to the available ferry sailings for islanders is essential.’

On Coll, ‘a similar survey of more than 50 per cent of households found 96 per cent support the idea’, said MIFC.

On neighbouring Tiree, the chairman of the island’s community council Dr John Holliday said it receives ‘a large number of complaints from islanders finding it difficult to travel in peak season when they need to. We have not committed ourselves yet to a precise solution, but we are in no doubt there is a serious problem.

‘Tiree has become a popular tourist destination, with around 40 per cent of the island’s houses now second homes.’

MIFC said 80 per cent of tourism businesses surveyed were in favour of the Samso system.

A Transport Scotland spokesperson said: ‘We understand the impact of capacity constraints on islanders and appreciate the suggestion of some level of prioritisation.

‘There are, however, differing views on the way to achieve this and we are mindful of wider implications for island businesses by restricting availability of tickets for freight and tourists.

‘CalMac and Transport Scotland are looking at potential short-term measures that could be introduced to help alleviate the current capacity challenges.’