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A UK Government ferry summit convened by Scotland Office Minister John Lamont has allowed island communities to raise concerns directly to vessel operator Caledonian MacBrayne (CalMac).

Held on Monday February 5, the meeting was attended by CalMac Chief Executive Robbie Drummond and CalMac Operations Director Robert Morrison.

Also present were members of the CalMac Ferries Communities Board, Colonsay Lifeline Transport Group, Arran Ferry Action Group, Arran Community Development Trust, Mull and Iona Community Trust, Tobermory Harbour Association, and key businesses, MSPs, and MPs.

Mr Lamont said that discussions were 'full and frank', with community representatives talking about the effects of an unreliable service on families, business, and the tourist trade.

Minister Lamont said: "I saw first-hand the problems many islanders are experiencing when I visited Oban, Mull and Arran in the summer. There was clear frustration that their voices were not being heeded and, when I spoke with CalMac Chief Executive Robbie Drummond, I was struck by the opportunity to improve lines of communication between the people who suffer when ferries are out of action, and the major operator of those vessels.

"Transport in Scotland is devolved to the Scottish Government, and the UK Government respects that. But it would be remiss of me as a Scotland Office Minister if I did not heed the growing chorus of voices alarmed that CalMac's fleet is ageing, and promised new vessels linger on blocks or the dockyard quay. It is for the Scottish Government to act to improve the situation for our island communities, but I want to amplify the voices of those I met over the summer."

He added that he was struck by reports that the Arran Ferry Action group was disbanding as it believed concerns were being ignored. 

Mr. Drummond said CalMac takes its responsibility for a reliable and resilient ferry service seriously and welcomes opportunities to engage with communities and stakeholders such as local ferry groups and Transport Scotland.

Commenting today (Tuesday February 6), Mr Drummond said: "Yesterday's event should be seen as just part of the extensive efforts CalMac makes to engage with all of our key stakeholders on a regular basis. It was encouraging to hear our hard work to communicate better recognised.

"We will now reflect on what was discussed yesterday and intend to follow-up with everyone who was in the room to progress some actions from a productive meeting."

Mr Drummond added that the meeting had provided an opportunity to explain reasoning behind weather cancellations, which he said were only taken as a last resort. He supported the continued use of a flexible approach to cancellations based on crew input, rather than blanket cancellations, despite it often resulting in late changes. 

He also commented on the continued wait for new vessels, saying: "The six major and 10 small new vessels funded by the Scottish Government and arriving over the next few years are very much welcome; however, we face a difficult period as we wait in anticipation for them to be fully operational on the network. In the meantime, we will continue to work in partnership with local stakeholders and communities to ensure the best possible outcomes for all who rely on our services."

Information from the meeting will now be passed by the Scotland Office to the UK Government and its Islands Forum.

Data cited by the Scotland Office said that 2022-2023 saw CalMac cancel 4,620 sailings for reasons unrelated to weather, a 237 per cent rise from 2017-2018.