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The Highland Line: ferry fears, times three

It is a headline that has been written more than once or twice in the past few decades, but “Islanders fear for future of ferry service” has just been dusted down again for several of our island communities.

An artist's impression of the new Stornoway-Ullapool ferry
An artist's impression of the new Stornoway-Ullapool ferry

Ferry Tales 1

Most immediately for the people of Orkney and Shetland who are facing three different days  of strikes  by the RMT on their ferries from Aberdeen and Scrabster starting next Friday, and  leading up to Christmas and New Year.

A  ballot for industrial action was called  after the new private operators of the routes, Serco,  announced  in October that it was seeking to shed 36 posts on the services from Aberdeen and Scrabster in Caithness. Of the 108 who voted, 95 said they were willing to strike.

It follows an earlier threat of industrial action over Serco’s plans for the routes.

The controversial multinational only won  the new £243 million six-year Northern Isles ferry contract in May.
It specialises in managing outsourced government contracts here and abroad including the UK Atomic Weapons Establishment at Aldermaston as part of a consortium, which in 2007 saw it excluded from Norway's multibillion-pound sovereign wealth fund's investment portfolio, for being unethical.

There was a legal challenge from one of the unsuccessful bidders for the Orkney and Shetland routes, but it failed. So Serco took over from the publicly owned NorthLink Ferries, part of the David MacBrayne Group, although the vessels are owned by owned by a subsidiary of the Royal Bank of Scotland. The new operator renamed itself Serco NorthLink Ferries.

FerryTales 2

The headline also applies to the  visit by a delegation from the Stornoway Port Authority to Edinburgh to meet transport minister Keith Brown to express local concerns about the new £42m super ferry which will operate on the Stornoway to Ullapool route.

The new 116m roll-on roll-off vehicle passenger ferry will be capable of operating 24 hours a day and will have a capacity for up to 700 passengers, and 143 cars or 20 commercial vehicles. It is scheduled for delivery at the end of June 2014 and will go into service shortly thereafter. It is planned that it will complete four return journeys every 24 hours.

But the port authority did not want this vessel. It had wanted upgrading of the present arrangement which sees one vessel doing an overnight run taking most of the freight, and another taking passengers and cars during the day.

Each docks at its own linkspan ( the ramp that acts as a bride between pier and ferry and which goes up and down with the tide) in Stornoway and avoid each other  in Ullapool.

CalMac was forced into this dual vessel system 15 years ago when an independent operator appeared on the scene to answer long-standing demand from island hauliers for an overnight freight service to the mainland, so they could be down in the central belt around 8am and back in time to go back to Lewis the next night.

But ministers have decided one  big ferry will do both jobs. However the linkspans will require to be adapted, at some considerable cost, to accommodate it.

The Scottish Government expects the port authority to pay more than £1m towards the work which, as things stand, will only mean the upgrading of only one linkspan at Stornoway  and the one at Ullapool.

So what’s the problem? Well sometimes linkspans get damaged and are put out of operation.

It happened on Islay just  two years ago. CalMac's  Isle of Arran  ferry was blown on to the linkspan as she berthed at Port Askaig, damaging the ferry and  the linkspan which was out of operation for six weeks.

However there was an alternative port with a linkspan on the island at  Port Ellen, so the service kept running.
But if that happened with the super ferry at Stornoway, there would not be another port in the Outer Isles where it could dock. If it happened at Ullapool, the ferry would have to travel all the way to the Clyde to dock.

There is also concern that the new vessel, which will carry up to 143 cars on 820metres of vehicles lanes, will land the cars  in Stornoway, just 300 metres from the main road.  The port authority says this could lead to gridlock, preventing the ferry from achieving the planned four return sailings a day.

Much to the relief of islanders, transport minister Keith Brown has agreed to consider the matter further. Whether money will ever be found to have two suitable linkspans at both Stornoway  and Ullapool remains to be seen, and some on Lewis think the odds are still stacked against them.

This because of the funding mechanism for port improvements, and this is where things get really complicated.

The publicly owned ferry company CalMac used to own its own vessels, and the infrastructure at many of the ports its ferries served. But in 2006 CalMac was divided in two, with the vessels and ports being taken over by another public company Caledonian Maritime Assets Ltd (Cmal) and CalMac Ferries Ltd to operate the services. This was to allow CalMac  to tender for its own routes under European law, which it did successfully.

But neither Ullapool or Stornoway were owned by CalMac and are not now owned by Cmal. They are trust ports, run by independent appointed boards of trustees.

However when it comes to investment, things can get difficult as a report by Fisher
Associates, 
commissioned
 by
 Cmal and published in 2010 hinted: “Trust
 Ports
 and
 Cmal
 share 
investment
 funding 
from 
a
 so‐called 
‘single
 pot’,
 which 
is
 controlled
 by
 Cmal.”

So the good people of Lewis were not surprised that expenditure on Ullapool and Stornoway was being limited.

However it now appears that Keith Brown has started to take the islanders’ concerns seriously, which may or may not be good news for Cmal.

But perhaps the Stornoway to Gourock service is a little way off yet.

Ferry Tales 3

Meanwhile the determination of the people of South Uist to win the return of a ferry service  is from Lochboisdale to Mallaig is truly impressive.

They will just not take no for an answer, which is indeed exactly the answer they have been getting from the Scottish Government since  2007.

That was when CalMac won a six-year contract to run the lifeline services to the islands, the services  it had been running for decades, ending a controversial tendering process in which CalMac was the only bidder.

CalMac had offered to provide a service between Mallaig, Barra and South Uist using existing vessels, as well as continuing the link to Oban. But the Scottish Government said it would have meant a reduction in services or a new vessel.

Since then, the islanders have made repeated attempts to change ministerial minds, which is not surprising.  There was a connection to Mallaig which was withdrawn in  the 1990s.

Today, South Uist and Barra are still served by the same ferry which sails  to Oban. The trip to South Uist at times  can take almost seven hours. A three-and-a-half hour service to Mallaig is seen as the answer, particularly now the road from Mallig to Fort William has been so much improved.

At one point a detailed proposal was  prepared involving a former CalMac vessel, then owned by Pentland Ferries.

It came from the body which led Scotland's biggest community buyout. Storas Uibhist bought South Uist Estates - which covers most of South Uist and Eriskay, and much of Benbecula - for £4.5m in 2006 and has been pushing for the new service ever since.

A year ago when the Scottish Government published its Draft Ferries Plan, ministers were still not convinced: “We have considered whether a Mallaig to Lochboisdale service could become the principal route for the Uists and Benbecula. We believe that given the shorter crossing between Lochmaddy and Uig, and the easier access to this service by a greater proportion of the Western Isles population, that it is correct that Lochmaddy to Uig remains the principal route for the Uists and Benbecula.”

But they did promise to “further consider the economic viability of this proposed service”.

The Scottish Government is now finalising the details of its ferries plan, so this week an online survey was  launched to gather views on reintroducing a ferry service between Lochboisdale in South Uist and Mallaig on the mainland.

The Missing Link Campaigners (those fighting for the Mallaig service)  and the Hebrides Range Task Force have jointly commissioned the survey.

The task force involves local council Comhairle nan Eilean Siar and was set up in 2009 to fight threatened job cuts at military rocket test facilities on in the Uists.

Comments gathered in the survey will be submitted to the Scottish government's ferry review consultation.

Task force chairman Angus Campbell said: "The Ferries Review was designed to ensure that island communities get the ferry service they need. This survey offers a final opportunity for the community of the Uists to demonstrate its support for a fit for purpose ferry service, before the Ferries Review is finalised."

Safe to say, we have not heard the last on this subject.

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