Comhairle nan Eilean Siar has stepped up calls for urgent and real action on a ferry fleet replacement programme including dedicated ferries for Harris and North Uist and a two-ferry operation on the Stornoway route.

Chairman of the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, Councillor Uisdean Robertson said:  “The Comhairle has been encouraged by the open approach and sympathetic ear Ministers have given to engaging with us on ferry matters.

"However, we must not lose sight of the fact that the vessel replacement and renewal needs of our lifeline ferry fleet extend far beyond the two delayed ferries.  We need to see real action from Government to overcome the decades long underinvestment in Scotland’s lifeline ferry fleet with orders placed at shipyards to replace all four major ferries that have already been in service for 30 years or more.

“With the imminent passing of winter, islanders should be looking forward to the summer with a sense of optimism. This is again tempered by an unease that stems from the likelihood of technical failure in the ageing fleet of ferries which we must rely on as the lifeline for our communities.”

Comhairle nan Eilean Siar wrote to the Islands Minister late last year following the positive discussion he had with business and community representatives at the ferry summit in Uist in November. The Comhairle set out a range of measures to improve reliability and resilience on the crossings to and within the Western Isles in the short, medium and long term.

At the heart of the problems Calmac have faced in recent years is a chronic lack of investment in the fleet of ferries at their disposal.  Efforts to address this are being frustrated by the failure of Ferguson Marine to deliver the two ferries which they were contracted to build and which should have been in service in 2018.

Instead it looks likely that it will be into 2020 before communities see the benefit of these ferries.  The prospect of these overdue ferries must not be treated as a mask to the fact that they were supposed to be a long overdue start on a critical issue. The delay in delivery of these vessels should not impact on other equally badly needed fleet renewals.

The Government’s own vessel replacement and deployment plan points to critical capacity constraints on routes to North Uist, Harris, Stornoway, Islay and Mull within the next three years even with the small relief of the delayed new ferries. 

It is essential that Government steps up to their responsibility by replacing the four major ferries that date from the 1980s and the success of RET means the fleet size needs to increase by one if not two new major ferries. This would provide a dedicated ferry to both Harris and North Uist.  The Stornoway route should be stepped up to a two-ferry operation.