THE introduction of additional freight-only ferry services connecting Islay with the Scottish mainland should be urgently considered to alleviate a capacity crisis on one of the west coast’s most important transport links.

A report, commissioned by Highlands and Islands Enterprise, Argyll and Bute Council and the Scotch Whisky Association (SWA) following a transport summit on the island last year, has recommended the business case for additional freight-only sailings to Islay be explored as quickly as possible.

It comes after a series of articles in The Herald underlined the pressure on ferry services linking the Hebridean island with the mainland caused by the rapid expansion of the whisky and tourism industries on Islay.

The most recent statistics from ferry operator CalMac show there were 12,072 crossings by commercial vehicles between Islay and Kennacraig on the mainland in 2018, 844 or 7.52% more than the year before. That number is forecast to rise again this year on the back of new distillery openings, and investment to expand production and enhance visitor centres by the likes of Diageo and Bruichladdich.

The Islay Ferry Committee, which took part in a ferry summit attended by local MSP Mike Russell yesterday, forecasts whisky production on the island will increase by 33 per cent in the next three years.

With increased numbers visiting Islay because of the growing popularity of whisky tourism, it estimates an additional 12,000 extra car spaces will be needed by 2023.

The forecast was disclosed as a new report recommended that a study is carried out “as soon as possible” to examine the costs, revenue and social benefits a freight service would bring, “with the expectation that an ‘attractive’ week-day freight-only service to/from Islay should be introduced as soon as possible”.

The report states: “This business case should start with a detailed consideration of the relevant operational and other constraints which might affect the deliverability of any additional ferry services being considered.

“If the demand continues to grow as forecast between now and 2023 (and beyond), then the week-day freight-only services could/ should be strengthened to two per day on weekdays and 1/day at weekends, particular in the summer months.”

The Islay Ferry Committee is calling for an overnight freight service to be introduced immediately to ease the capacity strain.

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But it is understood that does not have the support of Transport Scotland, which has concerns over how such services would be crewed.

Dunoon-based Western Ferries has previously signalled its interest in returning to serve Islay with a freight service, and reiterated its position yesterday.

Western came into being as a challenger to David MacBrayne (later Caledonian MacBrayne) running services to Islay in the 1960s, before withdrawing from the route in 1981.

Gordon Ross, managing director of Western, said: “It is interesting to see that this report has come to the same conclusion as Western Ferries.

“We have known for some time that there is a pressing need for a dedicated freight service to Islay, which is only going to increase. Western Ferries are still assessing the feasibility of providing that service to the island and we continue to discuss our options with Transport Scotland.”

Meanwhile, the report, which was compiled by consultants at Systra, has also called for a new vessel to be introduced to the Islay route as soon as possible.

Islay is currently served by two ferries, the MV Finlaggan and the decades-old MV Hebridean Isles, which is nearing the end of its deployment plan, published by Transport Scotland in 2016, signalled that the next vessel to be procured by CMAL (Caledonian Maritime Assets) would be allocated to Islay to replace the Hebridean Isles. That replacement is now due in 2023.

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But the well-publicised problems at the Ferguson yard in Port Glasgow, which was nationalised last month after falling into administration, has had delayed those plans.

The Ferguson yard had won the contract to build two new dual-fuel ferries from CMAL shortly after the business was saved by industrialist Jim McColl in 2014. But in the period since relations between the two parties deteriorated dramatically amid rancour over costs and changes to the vessel designs. 

The Systra report calls for the current version of the vessel replacement and deployment plan to be “delivered as soon as possible”.

Its report adds: “Given the significant time-lag between a decision to procure a new vessel and it coming into service, CalMac and Transport Scotland should undertake regular monitoring of current (and forecasting of future) demand across all of their routes, to ensure that any new vessels required to cope with the future demand levels are procured in a timely fashion.”

 Transport Scotland spokesperson said: “Officials welcomed the opportunity to attend the Islay Ferry Summit today which brought together a range of important stakeholders to discuss these important issues.

“Transport Scotland has just received the report referred to and will be considering it in detail, with any comments on its recommendations thereafter. 

“We remain open to discussions from
commercial freight operators that will support the local economy and compliment the roll on-roll off services already provided by the Scottish Government through CalMac.

“Meanwhile, Scottish Ministers are progressing their commitment that the next major CalMac vessel
to be commissioned will be for Islay.”