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By Hugh Boag
An urgent demand for action was made this week after it was announced it will be at least Thursday June 3 before MV Isle of Arran resumes service as the second boat on the Brodick to Ardrossan route.
The appeal has gone out to the new Scottish government ministers in charge of transport and the islands as CalMac has given dates before of its pending return, only for these to come and go as work drags on to repair the MV Loch Seaforth which saw the Arran ferry drafted into service Islay.
VisitArran this week called the appalling ferry service currently being endured as ‘the worst in the last 20 years’. They claim it has led to holiday bookings being cancelled as visitors were unable to get replacement sailings, despite increased capacity on the Lochranza to Claonaig route.
The tourist body has called for direct action from businesses affected and asked for personal videos highlighting the crisis they can take, along with other evidence, to the Scottish cabinet.
Islanders, too, are facing problems getting off the island with no bookings being taken until June 8 and the turn up and go capacity reduced to eight foot passengers on each sailing of the MV Caledonian Isles. Even passengers with dogs have been having trouble getting on ferries as the number of dogs is limited to 1o – unless you want to leave mutt in the car.
Both Arran ferry groups have written to the new Scottish ministers asking them for urgent meetings.
The Isle of Arran Ferry Committee has written to returning transport minister Michael Matheson and new ferries minister Graeme Dey asking for an urgent meeting to discuss what they describe as the ‘dire situation’.
Chairman Iain Thomson stated: ‘Covid-19 has severely impacted us, as with all communities, however the failure to provide an effective ferry services has exacerbated this impact and has caused major problems for our quality of life, the sustainability of the fragile island economy and will no doubt increase mental wellbeing issues and emigration of young people. This predates but has been amplified by the pandemic and will continue as a major limiting factor for community and economic recovery and sustainable development until satisfactorily addressed.’
The new islands minister, Mairi Gougeon, has been invited to visit Arran by Arran Ferry Action Group to see for herself the devastating impact the current ferry situation is having on the fragile island economy.
In his letter secretary Chris Attkins stated: ‘This crisis extends to other islands up the west coast of Scotland served by the ailing CalMac ferry fleet. We desperately need reliable ferries so the islands can recover just like the mainland, otherwise we risk the collapse of island economies within the next one to two years.
‘While we are fully aware this can’t be solved overnight, or in the next few weeks or months, we need a clear, decisive plan to get us through the next five to 10 years. And an urgent cross-party commitment to £500m investment in new boats over 10 years.’
CalMac say if the MV Loch Seaforth resumes service from Monday May 31, the MV Isle of Arran will return to the Brodick to Ardrossan route on Thursday June 3, but she will also start the Campbeltown summer season sailings the same day.
In a rare bit of good news, it has been confirmed the sailings will now be via Brodick on Thursday and Friday and continued stop offs on Saturdays.
Robbie Drummond, managing director of CalMac, said: ‘Specialists are working day and night on the MV Loch Seaforth to ensure her safe return to Stornoway-Ullapool.
‘This has been an extremely frustrating time for passengers and our staff and I am grateful to them all for their continued patience.’
Arran’s re-elected MSP Kenneth Gibson has pledged the Scottish government will spend at least £580 million on ferries over the next five years.
It follows a constructive meeting on Tuesday when Mr Gibson and his colleagues Dr Alasdair Allan and Jenni Minto, who represent the Western Isles and Argyll and Bute respectively, met with new ferries minister Graeme Dey MSP.
Mr Dey was appointed only last Thursday but has already had numerous meetings with stakeholders. He said: ‘I am keen to hear directly about the specific issues and challenges faced by islanders at what is a particularly difficult time. Social distancing has greatly reduced ferry capacity and the breakdown of the MV Loch Seaforth and bad weather have exacerbated an already difficult situation.
‘My MSP colleagues have understandably been inundated by irate constituents and sought this early meeting. I believe they took confidence from my understanding of the difficulties being endured and take such matters very seriously.
‘In the short term, we are actively exploring opportunities for chartering additional tonnage, including consideration of the MV Pentalina, and looking at other credible, affordable and viable options to improve resilience.’