Radical overhaul needed now for Arran ferries

Police in Brodick help restore order in the ferry queue.

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Action must be taken now to improve the Arran ferry service after the island was hit by widespread disruption on the first days of 2020.

There is real sense of anger that despite atrocious weather conditions there is a widespread feeling that there has been ‘incompetence and mismanagement’ shown by CalMac bosses, who many feel could have done more.

Add this to the frustration that two smaller, less robust, boats are presently in service on the Brodick to Ardrossan route with more bad weather forecast while the MV Caledonian Isles is in for her annual refit.

Hundreds of New Year visitors were left stranded when they could not get off the island after just one boat sailed on January 2 and those trying to leave to get back to work on Monday faced long waits for a shuttle service from Lochranza.

CalMac said there has been ‘severe weather-related disruption’ since the new year, due to gusts of up to 60mph sweeping the coast even before Tuesday’s Atlantic storm which saw all ferries cancelled.

Gavin Fulton, chairman of the Arran Ferry Action Group, said there needed to be a ‘radical overhaul’ of the procurement and management of the entire ferry service in Scotland.

He said pressure was mounting on the Scottish government to act as the people of Arran were living with disruption ‘almost every week’.

‘It is a complete mystery why the ferries cannot go to Gourock when it is stormy as the same boat as we have now, the MV Caledonian Isles, went there for years.

‘We absolutely accept that there will be days in the year when the ferry won’t sail, but the situation in the past was the boat sailed to Ardrossan on a regular basis and when the weather was bad the boat sailed to Gourock. It is a low to no cost fix.

‘Although we would get less sailings in a day, we still had a secure link to the mainland. Some years ago the boat stopped sailing to Gourock and there has been no credible explanation as to why it does not sail to Gourock now,’ he added.

However Gourock is not available for use at the moment as the linkspan is broken and the pierhead gangway has been shut since last September and is still awaiting repair.

The four year delay to the MV Glen Sannox due to the problems affecting construction at the Ferguson shipyard in Port Glasgow is a further frustration, although sources say she would have fared no better getting into Ardrossan in recent days.

‘Obviously new boats are required. The current fleet is very old and prone to a lot of breakdowns, which is making the situation difficult,’ Mr Fulton continued.

‘There are other problems. Ardrossan is not a good harbour. They are planning to spend £35m altering it for the new ferry which, if it ever arrives, would be going there, but the harbour is hopelessly exposed and it has in the past few days been positively dangerous for the skippers getting into the habour.

‘Would that expenditure solve the situation? They’ve spent £31m at Brodick and the pier is hopelessly compromised. It doesn’t work properly in an easterly wind. So this to me all comes down to incompetence and mismanagement.’

Conservative transport spokesman and West Scotland MSP Jamie Greene  commented: ‘This travel chaos is symptomatic of the Scottish government’s inability to afford islanders a reliable ferry service, with Ardrossan and Arran being amongst those worst effected in Scotland.

‘Residents are living with disruption every week because of the SNP’s failure to deliver the replacement Arran ferry, which we recently learned would be delayed until at least 2022.

‘Unfortunately there doesn’t seem to be any contingency plans in place to prevent similar situations occurring in the future.

‘It’s clear that delivering the new Arran ferry must be a priority for the Scottish government so that residents are afforded the frequent and reliable ferry service that they deserve.’

CalMac’s director of operations, Robert Morrison, said: ‘There has been severe weather related disruption since the New Year with gusts of up to 60 mph impacting on our ability to deliver services to Arran and elsewhere.

‘In such conditions ships’ Masters will take a decision on whether it is safe to sail or not based on wind speed and direction, sea swell and tidal conditions combined with their experience of sailing in west coast waters.

‘As the weather cleared on January 3 we laid on four extra sailings from Brodick to the mainland, the maximum we could, to clear the backlog of traffic which we succeeded in doing by the 15.20 sailing.

‘Disruption continued on January 5 across the network with sailings suspended from Brodick to Ardrossan due to weather. To try and keep passengers moving we laid on an additional shuttle service from Lochranza to Tarbert succeeding in moving around half the cars that were booked to sail.

‘Unfortunately, it is a reality of island life that in mid winter there is always a likelihood that some sailings will be cancelled due to adverse weather conditions impacting on passengers ability to travel when they want and we strive to do all we can to manage this effectively.’

Speaking at the Scottish Parliament Chamber Kenneth Gibson MSP asked Ferries Minister, Paul Wheelhouse MSP, for the government to produce a long-term infrastructure and vessel replacement plan and for the reinstatement of the Gourock linkspan.

Kenneth Gibson MSP said: ‘ Minister, 63 cars and their occupants were left stranded on Arran on Sunday night. Many of them had waited hours without being told that the ferry service would terminate at 7.30 pm until I contacted CalMac and urged them to inform those who were waiting. One would have expected that to happen automatically.

‘Foot passengers who reached Argyll had no public transport to take them onward. Does the minister agree that that disorganised shambles is totally unacceptable, regardless of the weather?

‘A major issue for Arran and Bute islanders is the Gourock linkspan, which is 48 years old. It is inoperable for vehicles and in urgent need of repair or replacement to allow Gourock to be used as a port of refuge in bad weather. When will the linkspan be repaired or replaced, and when will the Government produce a long-term infrastructure and vessel replacement plan—over 10 or 15 years—so that we know what vessels are coming down the line to ensure that we do not have this situation year in, year out as the years progress?’

A planned charter of the MV Isle of Arran by the Clyde River Steamer Club for a special sailing round Arran today (Saturday) was still scheduled to go ahead at the time of going to print.

  • More ferry coverage on pages 4, 5, 8 and 9.

The police help restore order to the ferry queue in Brodick. 01_B02ferry01

Cars block the pavement after being turned away from the ferry in Brodick last Friday. 01_B02ferry02

Frustrated drivers faced long delays in Lochranza on Sunday. NO_B02ferry03

Cars and foot passengers finally get away on the MV Catriona from Lochranza.  NO_B02ferry04