With MV Hebrides being withdrawn from service after the vessel struck Lochmaddy pier on Wednesday 18th May the scenario that islanders have feared for so long in the ongoing ferry crisis that has impacted our lifeline services for at least the last 5 years has now arrived.
The community of Uist is left without a ferry service to the mainland with both MV Hebrides withdrawn from her service to Uig on Skye and MV Lord of the Isles in Greenock for repairs rather than on her service from Lochboisdale to Mallaig.
Islanders have long made clear the need for greater urgency on addressing the need to order new ferries. Comhairle nan Eilean Siar set out a blueprint for the Western Isles ferry service network that should offer Government a simple plan to follow. It is for a Western Isles Network made up of Six large ferries with 2 deployed to serve Stornoway and a dedicated ferry on the routes from Tarbert, Lochmaddy, Lochboisdale and Castlebay plus 2 smaller ferries to serve the Sound of Harris and Sound of Barra. Dedicated ferries will provide greater capacity and frequency in normal times and resilience will improve with the ability to cover any breakdown or dry dock maintenance within this network. The operations and management of this network should be based within the Western Isles and there should be an increased focus on recruiting crew locally.
The design is now in place for the two new ferries on order for Islay and this design would seem to offer a good fit for the dedicated ferries needed to Lochmaddy, Tarbert and Castlebay without any departure from that design. It should therefore be possible to quickly order these three ferries. A variant of this design would be appropriate for Lochboisdale. This investment along with the delivery of Hull 802 - which could be retained to serve Lochmaddy or used as second ferry on Stornoway - would allow the Western Isles network to be put in place giving the islands security of connectivity and year round resilience. This could reasonably be achieved within 3 years.
Comhairle nan Eilean Siar do not believe the Western Isles can wait 3 years or even the 2 years before 802 is in service to improve summer capacity and are seeking urgent action from Government to charter MV Pentalina on a bare boat charter basis with the crew provided by Calmac. The vessel is available on this basis and could be in service this Summer. Chartering Pentalina would provide vessel cover in the network for Summer 2022 and will allow Lochmaddy to maintain the 10 services a week needed when Uig pier is closed for 5 months from October.
Chair of Transportation and Infrastructure, Cllr Uisdean Robertson said,
“The Scottish ferry crisis is being experienced by islanders every day. It is not a newspaper headline, it is a harsh reality and we need Government to take decisive steps to secure the future of the islands their ferry contract is supposed to serve. While our call is for investment in new ferries this is still jam tomorrow. We need to see urgency and it is time for Government to put their money where their mouth is in terms of taking short term action. It is clear finding second hand vessels is difficult but there is one ferry available today that has been tested on a number of routes. Both Transport Scotland and Calmac were happy to see MV Pentalina join the fleet on the basis of a crewed charter from Pentland Ferries so there cannot be any reasonable argument for not chartering this vessel on the basis of it being crewed by Calmac. Comhairle nan Eilean Siar are calling on Scottish Government to stop making excuses and act now by chartering MV Pentalina at least until MV Glen Sannox and Hull 802 are in service.”