SCOTLAND’S state-owned ferry operator should overhaul its systems to make it easier to identify capacity crunch points on one of the west coast’s busiest routes.

CalMac, which runs the Clyde and Hebrides Ferry Service, has been urged to record all “at capacity” sailings connecting Islay with the Scottish mainland which turn away one or more vehicles “at any point prior to sailing”, whether because of “lane-length or deadweight constraints”.

The recommendation is included in a report commissioned by Highlands and Islands Enterprise, Argyll and Bute Council and the Scotch Whisky Association, and compiled by analysts at Systra. It suggests that by recording instances of vehicles being turned away it will be easier for CalMac to “identify and quantify capacity issues” on one of Scotland’s busiest routes.

The report was published as lifeline services across the west coast are coming under severe strain.

With regard to Islay, this is attributed to the rapid expansion of the Scotch whisky and tourism industries. The Islay Ferry Committee forecasts that whisky production on the island will expand by 33 per cent in the next three years as a result of new distillery openings and expansion projects by producers such as Diageo and Bruichladdich. It estimates an additional 12,000 car spaces will be needed by 2023.

READ MORE: Ferry giant urged to act to ease island crisis 

The Sytsra report includes a series of recommendations into how to ease the burden, including for CalMac to explore whether so-called “defensive booking” is impacting on capacity.

Defence booking is a practice which, in the case of Islay, typically sees hauliers make advance block bookings for their commercial vehicles in order to ensure they can get their wares to and from the island.

There are concerns the practice freezes out other passengers who would like to book places for cars. It is understood that it is not unusual for hauliers to cancel bookings just 24 hours before sailings, resulting in ferries setting sail with some spare capacity, despite previously being communicated as being fully booked. No charges are made for cancellations.

The Systra report states: “CalMac should consider whether the process of ‘defensive booking’ is having a significant impact on their carrying capacity (i.e. are there a significant number of sailings where late cancellations (by regular users) result in sailings which are flagged as ‘full’ (at any point during the booking period) end up sailing with spare capacity?).”

A CalMac spokesman said: “We look forward to reading the findings of this report in detail.

READ MORE: Ferry crisis sparks call for new freight service to Islay 

“We recognise the pressure on space caused by record numbers travelling to Islay and can assure customers that we are already working to address the issues raised.”

The spokesman added that funding has been secured from Transport Scotland for CalMac introduce a new booking and

ticketing system, which will involve the roll-out of “smart’” ticketing across digital platforms.

He said: “This is a significant investment which will help us plan deck space more efficiently and improve the experience for customers and enable better communication with customers through disruption

“In addition to this, we now have a team in place to work specifically with business customers to improve the way our commercial ferry booking and reservation system operates.”

As reported in The Herald yesterday, the Systra report also calls for a business case for the introduction of a freight-only service to be carried out “as soon as possible”.

Western Ferries reiterated its interest in running the service.