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Highland councillors flag potential solutions to ferry crisis

By Hector MacKenzie

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A number of routes, amongst them Ullapool to Stornoway, have been affected by the knock-on impact of breakdowns.
A number of routes, amongst them Ullapool to Stornoway, have been affected by the knock-on impact of breakdowns.

HIGHLAND councillors have added their voice to the debate on urgent action to provide greater resilience to island communities over ferry links.

The call comes as ferry services in some areas have become stretched to breaking point with frequent technical failures experienced by Calmac Ferries while trying to maintain lifeline services with an ageing fleet of ferries – some having to operate beyond the 30 year operational lifetime of a ferry.

Recognising the valuable input made by Comhairle nan Eilean Siar who have provided an action plan for Government to improve resilience and get fleet investment back on track, Highland Council’s administration has suggested short-term measures that could improve resilience across the Clyde and Hebrides ferry services contract – with a particular emphasis for islands within the Highland Council area.

The suggestions are as follows –

Short term (now – 2022)

Charter MV Pentalina to operate the Craignure to Oban service and release MV Coruisk to return to providing the service from Mallaig – Armadale. Solution can be delivered within five weeks of a charter agreement being reached.

Return MV Loch Fyne to readiness for slipway operation on the Lochaline to Fishnish service increasing capacity on that route and ensuring that in future dry dock maintenance periods the MV Hallaig will only leave the Raasay route for its own scheduled maintenance. A commitment should be given to Raasay that the route will be covered by another Hybrid Electric ferry or in the event that this is not possible by a vessel capable of carrying no fewer than 18 cars. Solution can be delivered by 2021/22 winter timetable.

Ministers to approve the purchase of the new catamaran identified by Mull and Iona Ferry Committee to provide a long term solution to the Mull service ensuring MV Coruisk remains dedicated to the Skye service. Solution can be delivered by 2022.

Ministers to charter a passenger vessel to operate alongside MV Loch Nevis to increase frequency for foot passengers travelling to the Small Isles. Solution can be delivered by 2022.

Medium term (2023 – 2028)

On delivery of Vessel 802 into service the opportunity should be taken to provide a dedicated vessel on each Little Minch crossing. The North Uist service to be operated by an open deck ferry suitable for the busy freight flow on that route. The shared vessel operation would be reinstated during winter months freeing the Harris ferry to provide drydock relief cover throughout the network. This will enhance connectivity between Skye and the Western Isles. Solution is subject to delivery by Ferguson (Port Glasgow Ltd) of the 802 which is estimated as being in service early in 2023.

Replace MV Lord of the Isles, which has been in service since 1989, with a new ferry purpose built for the Lochboisdale to Mallaig service. Solution can be delivered (based on timescales for the new Islay ferry) by 2024.

Cllr Trish Robertson, chair of economy and infrastructure at Highland Council said: “We support the case that has been outlined by colleagues in the Western Isles for urgent action by Government to secure the future of our island communities. The measures suggested above would, if acted upon, offer improved resilience for people in Raasay, Skye and the Small Isles.

"They will also improve connectivity between Highland and the Western Isles offering a greater variety of choices to visitors to our area. These proposals will be shared with the new Transport Minister and we look forward to working with Mr Dey to improve connectivity throughout the Highlands.”

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