Concern over delayed sailings, increased cancellations and a CalMac winter timetable that islanders say is too restrictive has pushed the issue to crisis point.
One option being investigated is to try to attract a rival ferry company to the route or for businesses to look at starting one themselves.
Andy Knight, managing director of TSL Contractors, Mull’s largest employer with 75 staff, said there was widespread concern.
He said: “We are seriously considering moving our operations to the mainland because, from our point of view, there has been no improvement in service. While everything else has been improving and becoming more modern, CalMac hasn’t.
“I have had meetings with Highlands and Islands Enterprise and the council, to see if they have sites available where we could look at relocating to.
“We are a Mull-orientated company, but now quite a lot of our business is on the mainland.
“We have tried to keep our head office function here because we believe in the sustainability of the island – it’s where we are from, so we have a natural bias towards the island – but if it becomes too difficult then we might need to shift entirely to the mainland.”
Oban is 40 minutes by ferry from Craignure on Mull, but in the winter, sailings do not reach the mainland before 10am and the last weekday return sailing is usually at 4pm.
Matters reached a head when, after months of talks with CalMac to try to get a better winter timetable, the ferry company suddenly wrote to reject the pleas from 30 island businesses.
Argyll MSP Michael Russell said: “I am very disappointed after what I thought were positive discussions with CalMac over many months.
“The letter came as a bolt from the blue. I am also concerned about the delays and cancellations and I would urge CalMac and Transport Scotland to think again.”
Businesses had suggested the ferry could berth at Craignure overnight on weekdays as it does at weekends, so a 7am outward ferry and return 6pm ferry could be put on, but CalMac has ruled that out, citing “increased exposure to risk”, given the pier and berth arrangement at Craignure could mean service disruptions and cancellations.
Ben Wilson, operations director of Inverlussa Marine Services, a Mull-based firm that employs 32 people, does not accept there is an undue risk at Craignure.
He said: “I know there are four or five of the largest businesses, including us, now looking at moving to the mainland, and the economic consequences to Mull could be massive. We are also thinking of the option of approaching other operators and we may look at the possibility of Mull businesses running a ferry service ourselves.”
Calum macLachlainn, vice-chairman of Mull Community Council, said: “CalMac’s job is to give a lifeline ferry service to the island and they are doing the exact opposite. This is devastating for Mull.”
Neal Goldsmith, general manager of the Isle of Mull Hotel and Spa, at Craignure, said the winter ferry timetable was very restrictive for local people who needed to go to the mainland. A freedom of information request by Mull businesses has revealed there were 85 sailings cancelled on the Craignure-Oban route last year – the highest figure in the past 16 years. There no cancellations in 2001, three in 2002, 14 in 2003 and 37 in 2012.
A spokesman for CalMac said: “This winter, 2014-2015, the Mull service will be enhanced on a Monday with two additional crossings, Wednesday four additional crossings and Fridays six additional crossings throughout the day.
“In order to deliver the desired earlier departures from Mull and late sailings to Mull tabled by a consortium of Mull-based businesses, the vessel would be required to berth overnight at Craignure on five nights per week and, with the current port infrastructure, this would significantly increase the risk of the vessel having to reposition or come off the berth in challenging weather, which would directly affect our core service.”