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Frustration with ferry operator Caledonian MacBrayne (CalMac) reached an all-time high this week after passengers endured a week-long series of delays, disruption and cancellations.
Initially the cancellations were due to inclement weather but the situation was exacerbated by nearly four days of extremely limited capacity owing to MV Caledonian Isles being removed from service after crew members tested positive for Covid.
The situation began last Thursday when a number of MV Isle of Arran sailings were cancelled due to high winds. MV Caledonian Isles attempted to deal with the peak summer demand but because of limited capacity and being reduced to a single vessel service – coupled with a Mayday response – it was unable to accommodate all of its customers and lengthy delays ensued.
CalMac scheduled an additional sailing to cope with the demand but the sailing, and an earlier 7.20pm sailing, were then cancelled owing to the weather. This resulted in more than 60 people being stranded on the island, with Police Scotland and Visit Arran implementing civil contingency measures to accommodate the stranded visitors.
Following the stranding of passengers on Thursday, the Arran Ferry Action Group wrote a letter to Stuart Wilson, CalMac group communications director, offering their assistance in drawing up a contingency plan in the event of future passenger strandings.
It said: ‘A prepared strategy can and must be prepared that can be put into action at a moment’s notice, ensuring that visitors are not left stranded, without information or help. This will entail the co-operation of island bodies, most of whom went the extra mile to sort people out last night.’
Tommy Gore, CalMac’s area operations manager for the Clyde, replied on behalf of Stuart Wilson. He said: ‘Managing people stranded in Arran or any civil contingency is a matter for the Arran Resilience Partnership. As soon as we became aware that the 7.20pm sailing would be cancelled, we liaised with partners at Visit Arran to ensure that they would be available to assist finding accommodation for people who were stranded, as they are far better placed than we are to arrange this, given the number of people we need to work with and operational requirements in the port. The police were called to attend as the weather cancellations meant that it was a civil contingencies issue.’
The following day, on Friday, passengers endured further cancellations on the MV Isle of Arran, and MV Caledonian Isles was once again delayed on most sailings owing to the volume of traffic it had to accommodate. There was temporarily relief on Saturday when MV Caledonian Isles was able to accommodate more of the bookings whilst the MV Isle of Arran continued to have sailings cancelled owing to adverse weather.
But Sunday brought fresh misery for travellers when MV Caledonian Isles was withdrawn from service following a positive Covid test among crew members and the vessel was returned to the east berth at Brodick Pier for deep cleaning and the crew to be replaced.
By Wednesday morning, after four days of being removed from service, the MV Caledonian Isles had still not returned and MV Isle of Arran was desperately trying to fulfilling the burden of all of its sailings. But, in another blow for passengers, MV Isle of Arran then developed issues with its bow visor which necessitated the cancellation of all four sailings before 11am on Wednesday morning as mechanics rushed to install a new bow visor seal.
Owing to the ever-increasing bottleneck of passengers needing to make use of the service, CalMac carried the following message on its website, ‘Space on the Ardrossan-Brodick route will be exceptionally limited and will operate on a first-come, first-served basis, with lifeline traffic being prioritised. Because of this, we ask that customers only travel if necessary. If you do not already have a vehicle booking please do not attempt to travel.’
Throughout all of the disruption CalMac urged passengers to also make use of its second route – Lochranza to Claonaig. And while this was well utilised, it could only alleviate some of the pressure on the service and is less favoured by many as the route entails a lengthy detour to the north of the island; the service is also not bookable, and there are no restroom facilities. CalMac said: ‘We would encourage as many people to travel on the non-bookable Lochranza to Claonaig service where extra sailings will be operating. MV Loch Linnhe will operate a shuttle service alongside MV Catriona’s published timetable to assist with additional traffic.’
The continued disruption over nearly a week raised the ire of passengers whose bookings were repeatedly cancelled and their holiday plans thrown into disarray. Businesses on Arran, as well as locals needing to make hospital and other important appointments, became increasingly frustrated with the service and are calling for immediate improvements. The disruption has also led to the Arran Ferry Committee expressing their disapproval at the situation. In a strongly worded statement to the Banner they said: ‘Arran Ferry Committee are extremely disappointed at the continued failure to provide effective capacity to meet the needs of island residents and commercial suppliers.
‘The uncertainty of travel and examples of missed appointments is totally unacceptable, and does nothing to instill confidence in the service offered. It is vital we have effective contingency planning and resilient processes for these situations and the urgent need for additional capacity and flexibility to operate out with set timetables is essential.
‘CalMac senior management need to be much more visible and involved to support the current unprecedented levels of cancellations and demonstrate leadership in resolving the crisis.
‘We are also disappointed that, despite frequent discussions basic public facilities cannot yet be provided at Claonaig to handle the increasing frequency that this route is being used to handle traffic displaced from the Ardrossan route.
‘Arran Ferry Committee has requested an urgent meeting with the Transport Minister to discuss these matters, and other concerns directly.’
When approached for a comment, particularly on resilience or future plans for this type of eventuality, CalMac’s managing director Robbie Drummond told the Banner: ‘It is unfortunate that this is the second Covid-related interruption affecting the same route within one week and I apologise for the inconvenience and distress this is causing to our customers. This is an escalating risk across the network for both vessels and ports.
‘Sourcing crew and port staff to replace those who are self-isolating and those who are waiting to receive the results of PCR tests is becoming increasingly difficult. Unlike other forms of public transport, ferry crew numbers are strictly governed by maritime laws, but with increasing numbers having to self-isolate, this unfortunately has a knock-on effect on the ferry service. Vessels are only permitted to operate with a minimum number of crew on board to protect passenger safety.
‘I would like to make clear that while this current situation has been caused by factors outwith our control, CalMac employees are being shouted at and treated in an aggressive manner by a minority of customers. This is not acceptable and will only lead to more people becoming ill.’
Tommy Gore, in his reply to the Arran Ferry Action Group, also spoke out about staff being abused. He said: ‘I would have to say that the level of abuse that my staff received during this time was completely unacceptable, with this abuse continuing after they had left the port and were simply doing their shopping in the Co-op. Whilst I appreciate people will be angry and frustrated, it is never acceptable for this to be taken out on frontline staff who are doing their best in difficult circumstances.’
Shortly before going to press on Wednesday, CalMac announced that they expected MV Caledonian Isles to resume normal service at 3.20pm from Ardrossan and that repairs to MV Isle of Arran were completed successfully and that the vessel would return to service at 12.30pm.