CalMac ferry crisis: Passengers warned of sold-out summer sailings on main Arran route to Brodick

Operator announces major fleet shake-up triggered by key ferry’s extended repairs after already being stretched “to the absolute limit”.

Sold-out summer sailings face passengers on one of CalMac’s busiest routes as it announced a network shake-up to cope with the loss of a major ferry – after already being stretched “to the absolute limit”.

Arran’s official ferry committee estimated space for passengers on the main route to Brodick would be more than halved and car capacity reduced by more than one third.

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CalMac revealed major changes to the deployment of its ships on Tuesday after "substantial” repairs to the 1,000-passenger Caledonian Isles that should have finished in January were extended to mid-June.

Repairs to Caledonian Isles are not now due to be completed until June. (Photo by CalMac)Repairs to Caledonian Isles are not now due to be completed until June. (Photo by CalMac)
Repairs to Caledonian Isles are not now due to be completed until June. (Photo by CalMac)

The west coast operator’s changes also include cancelling the summer-only Ardrossan-Campbeltown route for a second year.

However, CalMac said the plans were subject to possible further change because it intends to explore moving some ferries again to “improve capacity on multiple routes”.

It said services on the main Arran route to Brodick would operate from both Ardrossan and Troon because a berth at the former is out of action which limits its use.

But the firm warned: “Data on passenger and traffic volumes on the service indicates that for periods of the summer timetable there will still be sufficient capacity to meet demand, but there may be constraint at peak periods and some customers may not be able to attain their preferred sailing time.”

Alfred is due to operate between Troon and Ardrossan after running on the Ardrossan-Brodick route last summer. (Photo by John Devlin/The Scotsman)Alfred is due to operate between Troon and Ardrossan after running on the Ardrossan-Brodick route last summer. (Photo by John Devlin/The Scotsman)
Alfred is due to operate between Troon and Ardrossan after running on the Ardrossan-Brodick route last summer. (Photo by John Devlin/The Scotsman)

While 31-year-old Caledonian Isles, the Ardrossan route’s main vessel, is out of action, it will be served from Ardrossan by 659-passenger secondary vessel Isle of Arran, which is 40 years old, while 430-passenger Alfred, a catamaran chartered from Orkney-based Pentland Ferries, will operate from Troon.

Islay is to be served by Finlaggan and Hebridean Isles. However, Finlaggan, the main vessel on the route between Kennacraig on Kintyre and Port Ellen and Port Askaig, is due to have its annual overhaul after the Easter holidays and return to service ahead of the island’s Feis Ile festival in May.

CalMac said this was islanders’ preferred option, with Lord of the Isles due to provide cover during the overhaul.

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However, the company said it would carry out berthing trials to see if Isle of Lewis was suitable for the Little Minch route between Tarbert in Harris, Lochmaddy in North Uist and Uig in Skye after its overhaul was completed.

If that is successful, the ferries serving the main Arran route to Brodick would be changed to Hebrides and Alfred “and a further review of any vessel cascade changes will be published”.

CalMac chief executive Robbie Drummond said the plans had been devised after communities on its network were consulted last week – although the Arran’s Ferry Committee disputed that.

Mr Drummond said updated timetables for the affected routes were being finalised and would be published “as soon as possible”.

He said: “The deployment plan we chosen provides the best possible service to the network, though we recognise that there is going to be some disruption to some of the communities and customers we serve.

“Given our fleet was already stretched to the absolute limit, and without any spare vessels available, it is inevitable the loss of one of our larger vessels during peak season will cause some disruption across the wider network.

"However, we have worked hard and, in the circumstances, with careful attention to feedback and known vessel deployment/fit, created a revised deployment plan which we hope will minimise the impact across the network whilst still providing a resilient service which meets the needs of individual communities."

Mr Drummond said that while six major and ten small vessels were due to be added to the fleet over the next five years, “we face a difficult period as we wait in anticipation for them”.

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Bill Calderwood, secretary of the Arran Ferry Committee, said: "This is a very difficult proposal to accept given the potential impact and limited information available.

"It is anticipated we will see the theoretical capacity [on the main route to Brodick] reduced by 55 per cent for passengers and 37 per cent for vehicles.

“From our information, this option is not considered appropriate to meet the projected demands for our popular destination.

“The lack of engagement with the community in reaching this announcement is contrary to an understanding that the customers’ voice would be paramount in the decision-making process.

“Further discussion will be urgently sought to change the process and have options reviewed which deliver the needs of the community.”

Scottish Conservatives transport spokesperson Graham Simpson said: “This is the latest hammer blow to those living in rural and island Scotland for whom a reliable ferry is a lifeline requirement.

“CalMac’s fleet is so old and depleted – thanks to the incompetence and negligence of SNP ministers – that they are constantly having to shuffle vessels around the network to plug the latest gap.

“But, like one of those children’s puzzles, no matter how often the pieces are moved around, there’s always a space somewhere.

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“It’s unacceptable that the Campbeltown-Ardrossan route is being shut down for the entire summer.

"But the buck for this, and the entire ferries scandal, stops with the SNP.”

West Scotland Labour MSP Katy Clark said: “The latest vessel deployment plans will be hugely disappointing for communities and ferry users.

“I will continue to call on CalMac to fully scrutinise whether the Campbeltown service can be reintroduced where possible.

Operators can only work with what they have, and the blame must ultimately be laid at the feet of the Scottish Government.

“Ministers have failed to replenish the ageing fleet over the past decade, failed to develop a sustainable procurement plan, failed to invest in building capacity for new vessel projects and failed to invest in port infrastructure.

“I will continue to call for the investment and resilience planning needed to run the public ferry service that our communities deserve.”

Meanwhile, Mull islanders accused ministers of scuppering their hopes of taking over the main ferry service to the mainland by refusing to consider splitting it off from the CalMac network.

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Users group Mull and Iona Ferry Committee had commissioned studies into a "community enterprise" running the Craignure-Oban route which it said could have doubled capacity, and increased the frequency of sailings and operating hours, while cutting operating costs by 30 per cent.

But chair Joe Reade said ministers had "never offered a coherent argument in support of the monopolist status quo".

A spokesperson for the the Scottish Government's Transport Scotland agency said: "Ministers have been clear for some time that we do not favour splitting up the network or privatising any of the Clyde and Hebrides ferry services routes [run by CalMac] and this was a position supported by the [Holyrood] cross-party Net Zero, Energy and Transport Committee.”

“We share the desires of island communities for sustainable and effective ferry services and look forward to continuing our constructive engagement with them on future services and vessel replacements."



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