The sight of the Caledonian MacBrayne ferry, Loch Seaforth, limping into Stornoway harbour this week, accompanied by two lifeboats, set alarm bells ringing.
Already, the CalMac fleet is under severe pressure due to inadequate investment, breakdowns and two chronically delayed ferries ordered from the Ferguson yard in Port Glasgow.
Tourism, which is the only growth industry in most of these islands, is taking a big hit due to cancellations and inadequate peak season capacity.
Fortunately the Loch Seaforth has returned to service and all fingers are crossed that the problem was a one-off glitch. Now that question has been raised, however, others must be answered.
When the Loch Seaforth was commissioned, it was against the wishes of every local representative body who favoured a two-vessel solution on grounds of capacity and potential back-up. The single vessel solution was imposed by the Scottish Government which also decided to fund the £42 million ferry through a PFI scheme. These factors were undoubtedly linked.
So the Loch Seaforth is owned by Lloyd’s Bank, leased to Caledonian Marine Assets Limited and sub-leased to CalMac who were allowed to play no part in the ship’s design.
Attempts to get to the bottom of this deal with Lloyd’s Bank have been stonewalled on grounds of “commercial confidentiality”. For those most directly affected, that is not an adequate brush-off. Where does responsibility lie in the event of major breakdowns? What are the contingency arrangements? How much is CalMac paying Lloyd’s Bank and for how long? These are reasonable questions.
Meanwhile, it is surely time to look at leasing vessels to provide back-up for the over-stretched fleet, at least until Ferguson’s deliver. It could be a while.