ONLINE bookings of cars onto a key island ferry service were unavailable for over three weeks yesterday – after an emergency vessel chartered by the Scottish Government to support Scotland’s beleaguered ferry network broke down in less than a week.
Passenger ferry services from the mainland to Stornoway have had to be cancelled after the MV Arrow hit problems with its propellor.
The Herald can reveal that yesterday the earliest you could make an online booking for a car on the thrice daily Stornoway to Ullapool service was August 17. Going from the mainland to Lewis, there were no slots till August 11.
MV Arrow was to operate as a freight service by Seatruck on behalf of CalMac, providing additional capacity and resilience and was focussed on getting freight to and from Stornoway, the main town of the Western Isles.
But it hit problems after a fishing creel got tangled with a propellor on Saturday and all sailings have now been scrapped till the end of the month.
CalMac had confirmed it is to bring in MV Loch Seaforth to deal with the new wave of freight issues – and as a result one sailing a day has had to be cancelled from Monday and until further notice.
Na h-Eileanan an Iar SNP MP Angus MacNeil has written to First Minister Nicola Sturgeon and Jason Leitch, the national clinical director to urgently look at increasing the percentage of passengers who can travel on CalMac ferries.
While there was an expectation that all physical distancing requirements will be removed on August 9, Mr MacNeil is calling on the Scottish Government to increase capacity prior to this date to help ease the pressure on island ferries.
The Herald on Sunday revealed that residents have lodged concern over the “lottery” of getting on and off Scotland’s islands as it emerged some routes had little or no space for cars for over three weeks.
Mr MacNeil said: “Due to Covid restrictions, ferry capacity is a major problem on all islands and we urgently need an increase on the amount of people that can travel. The problem is exacerbated on the Lewis service at the moment due to the fact that the MV Arrow has broken down…”
There was further concern that lifeline airline services are set to be grounded this week as air traffic control staff are to go on strike in a dispute over cuts.
State-owned Highlands and Islands Airports Limited (HIAL) has received formal notification from Prospect of strike action by air traffic controllers at its 11 airports in the Scottish Highlands, the Northern Isles and the Western Isles.
The union have warned that the long-term future of lifeline services on Scottish islands is “at risk” through “staggering” plans to centralise air traffic control for seven airports and have triggered public safety fears.
Loganair has confirmed that it will be unable to provide flights at airports operated by Hial during the strike.
The one day work stoppage, which has been criticised by HIAL will be effective from just after midnight on July 29.
Mr MacNeil said: “The demand on travel is so high compared to the artificially low 35% threshold. Given that expectations are that 100% capacity will be reinstated on 9th August, if capacity was increased to 70% or 75% this week it would greatly help the difficulties in all islands on the west coas “We need to have governance close at hand and responsive this summer and I hope the First Minister and the National Clinical Director are alive to the issues on the west coast.”
READ MORE: Islanders’ fury over Scots ferry travel ‘lottery’ with no space for cars for more than three weeks on one route
Highlands and Islands Labour MSP Rhoda Grant has also made representations to CalMac asking them to increase passenger sailings with the MV Loch Seaforth between Ullapool and Stornoway.
Islanders have raised concerns about the lack of extra passenger sailings that were available even when MV Arrow was operating It was confirmed that while MV Arrow’s six freight sailings a week merely replaced those carried out by Loch Seaforth and as a result the largest vessel in the CalMac fleet would only be able to provide two additional passenger sailings over that time.
When Mrs Grant questioned this decision she was advised further sailings could not be provided because if they had to be cancelled at short notice, for instance if the MV Arrow was recalled, then it would cause too much disruption.
The CalMac union, the National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers (RMT) objected to the Scottish Government’s decision to allow the breaching of collective bargaining agreements to charter MV Arrow.# RMT General Secretary Mick Lynch had claimed lower paid seafarers on Arrow, on different contracts of those used by CalMac were “being imported through the back door”.
The Loch Seaforth, which runs the Stornoway to Ullapool route had to undergo major repairs after suffering an engine failure in April.
The breakdown caused wider disruption to CalMac’s west coast network as other ferries had to cover.
There have been further issues for sailings between Mallaig and Lochboisdale on South Uist after the 32-year-old MV Lord of the Isles, one of the biggest and oldest vessels in the CalMac fleet broke down.
Robert Morrison, operations director for CalMac, said: “The MV Arrow is unfortunately having to go to Belfast for repairs. Early indications are that this has been caused by marine waste in the seas causing an issue with the vessel’s propeller systems. This is an increasingly frustrating problem in the waters in which we operate.
“CalMac is chartering the vessel just now so the repairs are the responsibility of her owner and we will have to wait and see what the timeframe involved is going to be. In the meantime MV Loch Seaforth will again operate the overnight freight service until further notice. As a result, the additional passenger sailings that were in place will unfortunately also be cancelled.”
Angus Campbell, chairman of CalMac’s independent community board, said the ferry operator’s decision to charter the Arrow had been welcomed.
But he described the breakdown as a “huge disappointment”, adding that it “only adds to the total frustration with the service”.
A Transport Scotland spokesman said “We recognise the frustration felt by local communities in having the vessel removed from service. Calmac are working hard to maximise available capacity on the route and are engaging with stakeholders and customers via their normal channels.
“We acknowledge that the CMAL fleet is aging and that is why we are also delivering new tonnage to support our communities by working with CMAL, Calmac, MSPs, community representatives and others to develop investment programmes for major vessels and small vessels – investing at least £580 million over the next five years.”