More than 80,000 ferry services to Scotland's islands have been delayed or cancelled since the SNP came to power, it was claimed today, as warnings were made that winter would put services under further stress.
Concerns about Scotland's ferry services were raised in Holyrood today by the Scottish Conservatives, who said mismanagement had led to a "shameful" rise in delays and cancellations over ten years - rising by 160 and 130 per cent respectively.
However Scottish Government islands minister Paul Wheelhouse said that the services were improving, and so far this year only 0.67 per cent of sailings did not go ahead due to technical failings.
In a debate in which the Tories said a combination of an ageing fleet of vessels, mechanical breakdowns and the late arrival of new operational vessels had resulted in "avoidable disruption to services to the detriment of Scotland's island communities" calls were made for the Scottish Government to urgently address the issue.
Tory transport spokesperson Jamie Greene said that there had been 43,000 ferry cancellations and 39,000 delays since 2007. The SNP’s management of our ferry network presents a shameful rise in delays and cancellations over the past decade," he said.
“Half of our fleet is beyond its life expectancy, new vessels are years late to enter service and there is simply no long-term strategy to replace these ageing vessels. The nationalists’ handling of our ferry network is utterly woeful and our rural and island communities will make sure they pay the price for that on December 12.”
He added: "We are fast approaching winter when the resilience of ferries will be pushed to their limit."
Raising a pledge by Economy Secretary Derek Mackay to present Parliament with a detailed plan by the end of October for a revised timetable and costings of new ferry vessels, Mr Greene added: "Not only has it not materialised, but no reason has been given for its absence. Connectivity to our islands is arguably the number one thing on people's lips when you visit an island community.
"When the weather becomes an issue, our vessels and our docks are not geared up for these weather events. An ageing fleet means that those vessels need more maintenance than newer vessels."
Scottish Liberal Democrat Liam McArthur said the internal ferry services in Orkney already fall below the minimum standards set out in the government's ferry plan in terms of cost, frequency and accessibility. He said each new transport appraisal had repeatedly highlighted the need for new vessels, but there was little offered to the public in terms of assurances about improvements.
And Scottish Labour's Colin Smyth said that a lack of capacity and resilience, caused by reliance on an ageing fleet, had impacted reliability and demanded the government introduce a long-term ferry strategy, including a plan for replacements.
"This not only impacts on reliability but has caused maintenance costs to skyrocket by more than 150% over the last 10 years," he said. "More vessels are being withdrawn for longer, for extra maintenance.
"Every year more and more money is needed to mitigate the needs of a fleet that is too old and simply not fit for purpose."
He insisted money could have been saved "with a more proactive approach to vessel replacement", as he argued for a long-term strategy to be put in place to "deliver the comprehensive strategic plan for our fleet setting out a regular programme of replacement".
But Mr Wheelhouse said he was "far from complacent in respect of further improving the reliability and punctuality of Scotland-supported ferry services", and he detailed several grants and funds made available to ferry companies.
"The Scottish Government's budget for 2019-20 ensures continued support for subsidised ferry services across Scotland's islands," he said. "We remain committed to improving service quality and reliability."
He said that between January and September, CalMac's reliability rose by 0.5 percentage points compared to last year, with 97 per cent of ferries running as intended.
Mr Wheelhouse said: "Just 873 out of 130,184 sailings (0.67%) were affected by technical issues in the last year. While the hard work and dedication of the staff and crew of CalMac and North Link are key in delivering these reliability improvements, the continued support of the Scottish Government has also been a factor."
This, he insisted, would benefit the shipbuilding industry as well as the communities which rely on the ferry network.