CalMac ferry crisis: Key Islay route faces 'quite substantial' capacity cut unless new vessel found
Ferry passengers on CalMac’s Islay route face substantial capacity cuts from next month unless another vessel is found amid the operator’s most complex winter timetable for decades, which has been triggered by its ageing fleet.
The Scottish Government-owned firm said it was having to make an “enormous shuffle” because one of its major vessels – Hebridean Isles – is expected to continue to be out of action after being under repair since January.
It said the Islay route between Kennacraig in Kintyre and Port Askaig, which is normally served by Hebridean Isles, faced “quite a substantial capacity reduction” compared to last winter unless another ferry could be chartered, but it was “pretty confident” this could be achieved.
The link is crucial for the island’s whisky distilleries, while winter visitor numbers have also been on the increase.
CalMac said capacity would also be reduced on some other routes, but there would be fewer changes to the frequency of sailings. But it warned: “Periods of reduced service are still unavoidable for some routes, as we have stretched the fleet to its absolute limits.”
It said there would also be “major disruption” to the Oban-Colonsay route, while there will be “slightly reduced capacity or resilience” on the Mallaig/Oban-Lochboisdale (South Uist), Oban-Cragnure (main Mull link) and Oban-Castlebay (Barra) routes.
The Ullapool-Stornoway freight service, which will be similarly affected, could be operated by the chartered Pentland Ferries catamaran Alfred in October-November. It is currently serving as a second vessel on the main Arran route to Brodick.
However, capacity or resilience will be increased on the Oban-Coll/Tiree, Barra-Eriskay, Colintraive-Rhubodach, Localine-Fishnish and Tobermory-Kiloan routes.
CalMac said some routes would have to be served by a succession of different vessels because the fleet required record spending and longer in dry dock to complete its annual winter maintenance due the age of the ferries.
The operator is also having to contend with the temporary closure of harbours at Port Ellen on Islay and Uig on Skye during the timetable, which runs from October 23 to March 28. Uig will be closed from October 30 to December 11.
A CalMac spokesperson said: “This coming winter will see a number of challenges across the ferry network, with multiple vessels covering single routes over the winter period.
"This is one of the most complex timetables CalMac has ever had to produce, because of the extended absence of Hebridean Isles, coupled with an extended dry dock period and the closures of the ports at Uig and Port Ellen by their respective owners.
"The timetables have also been planned without MV Hebridean Isles, normally the backbone of the relief programme during the dry dock process, as ongoing investigations into the vessel continue.”
Director of strategy and change Pauline Blackshaw said: “With an incredibly complex timetabling environment, we are committed to finding every opportunity available to keep services running for all communities during vessel downtime.”
She said the timetable and overhaul plan had to be revised because of the “ongoing investigations and uncertainty associated with Hebridean Isles”.
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