PRESSURE is mounting for an injection of fresh capacity into the ferry route serving Islay amid forecasts that the burgeoning whisky and tourism industries will place even more strain on services this year.

Millions of pounds of investment by Scotch whisky distillers to expand production on Islay, alongside its growing popularity as a tourist destination, has put enormous pressure on the ferry service connecting the island with the Scottish mainland in recent years. That strain has been made all the more acute because of the widespread roll-out of Road Equivalent Tariff, which has dramatically cut the cost of travelling by car to the Scottish islands.

And with yet more investment planned by major whisky and gin distillers in the months and years to come, the demand for space from hauliers will ramp up even further this year.

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Figures from Caledonian MacBrayne (CalMac), the state-owned ferry operator, show that 12,072 commercial vehicles were carried between the two ports on Islay – Port Askaig and Port Ellen –and Kennacraig on the mainland in 2018, up 7.5 per cent on 2017 when 11,228 commercial vehicles were carried. The figure for 2017 was up compared with the 11,015 commercial vehicles carried the year before.

Now there is an expectation of even further demand being placed by hauliers on the service this year.

That comes in light of a new distillery, Ardnahoe, opening its doors on Islay in April, and multi-million-pound expansion plans by major Scotch whisky companies. These include Diageo, which is bringing the Port Ellen Distillery out of mothballs, and Remy Cointreau, the French drinks giant which is investing in own maltings and developing renewables power at the Bruichladdich distillery in Port Charlotte.

The performance of the Islay ferry service is also affected when ferries break down elsewhere on the west coast ferry network, which can mean ships are deployed to other routes to fill service gaps.

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A spokesman for the Islay Ferry Committee said specific forecasts for 2019 have still to be finalised. But there is an expectation that freight demand will rise. “We can say there has been a major increase in distillery traffic – and that is whisky and gin,” he said.

CalMac has traditionally served Islay with two vessels, the MV Finlaggan and the decades-old MV Hebridean Isles, which is nearing the end of its working life.

Transport Scotland, the national transport agency, recognised the pressure growing on the route in its 2016 Vessel Replacement and Deployment Plan. It recommended that the next vessel to be procured by Caledonian Maritime Assets Limited (CMAL), the public infrastructure body, would be allocated to Islay to replace the Hebridean Isles.

CMAL has yet to procure a vessel for Islay, though the Islay Ferry Committee has been asked to engage with its consultants to set out what it considers to be the main requirements of a new ship. That will include factors such as capacity, including tonnage capacity as well as vehicle space, car to passenger ratios, and facilities on board to accommodate crews.

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However, the Islay Ferry Committee emphasised that it was not comprised of maritime experts and will no have input into vessel design.

Despite the clamour in some quarters for CMAL to replace existing ships with catamarans, which some say would cut vessel procurement costs and improve fleet reliability, it is understood there is no appetite to deploy such vessels on the arduous two hour plus journey between Islay and the mainland.