PASSENGERS are facing widespread disruption on Scotland’s ferry network after the main operator warned of potential breakdowns and delays due to its increasingly ageing fleet.

The average age of ferries serving Caledonian MacBrayne’s lifeline routes is just under 22 years.

Islay, Harris and Uist have already been hit by disruption, with the Hebridean Isles, one of two ferries that normally serve Islay, already withdrawn to work on the Tarbert and Lochmaddy routes.

Now CalMac Ferries’ new interim managing director, Robbie Drummond, has warned that as the company gears up for its busiest ever summer season, challenges with the ageing fleet are set to bring severe disruption.

Yesterday the network suffered disruption due to high winds, with the Arran to Ardrossan ferry suspended in early afternoon as was the Harris ferry.

Other routes were also suspended on the first Bank Holiday Monday of spring, which caused severe disruption to thousands of Easter break holidaymakers.

It came on the first weekend of CalMac’s summer timetables and the peak tourist period this year is set to be a severe test for the 32 ferries that serve 51 ports on 49 routes.

Mr Drummond said: “We ask a lot of our fleet, and indeed our people, at the busiest time of year on our network.

“I am very conscious of the workload our boats will be undertaking and the strain that puts them under, particularly the older vessels in the fleet, eight of which are more than 30 years old now.

“We’re already dealing with the consequences of that reality and I’d like to apologise to everyone impacted by the temporary removal of the MV Hebridean Isles to cover for the MV Clansman, in dry dock awaiting the return of the propulsion unit sent to Denmark for repairs.

“The Glen Sannox, launched in November, is one of two new ferries that will join our fleet in the future. Until then, we will of course pro- actively manage as best we can with the current fleet, but I fear that it will, at times, cause issues on some of our routes.”

It comes amid concerns that a 10-fold increase in traffic is already causing severe problems for island communities.

Figures show the number of motorhomes travelling to the Western Isles has risen over the past decade, with nearly 2,000 heading to Harris alone.

The huge rise in tourists follows the introduction of a Scottish Government scheme to make island ferry fares more affordable.

The Road Equivalent Tariff was introduced to boost remote economies – and worked so well the number of cars on one route is up by more than 80 per cent.

The Road Equivalent Tariff bases fares on the cost of travelling the equivalent distance by road and was introduced on the Western Isles, Coll and Tiree in October 2008, cutting fares by up to 55%.

It was extended to Islay, Colonsay and Gigha in October 2012, to Arran in October 2014 and now covers every route.

Across the network, car traffic has increased by just over 25 per cent which is causing severe problems as islanders struggle to book ferries and increased traffic contends with many single track roads.

The rise brought severe disruption last year and island communities are already braced for delays as two £50 million hybrid green ferries are delayed by complex engineering works on the pioneering vessels.

The MV Glen Sannox, the world’s first liquified gas duel fuel ferry, was due to start on the busy Arran route from this summer but it and its sister ship which is due to run on the Skye to Harris route, have experienced technical issues and neither is now expected to enter service until 2019 or even 2020.

During 2017, CalMac carried more than five million passengers, nearly 1.5 million cars, some 80,000 coaches, and just under one million metres of commercial traffic.

The ferries deployed on CalMac routes are leased to the company by their owners, Caledonian Maritime Assets Limited (CMAL), a separate and distinct company which is wholly-owned by the Scottish Government.

CMAL also owns, and is responsible for maintaining, some of the many harbours CalMac uses for its services up and down the west coast.

Last year CalMac’s parent company David MacBrayne Ltd (DML), saw its subsidy from the Scottish Government rise from £122.6m to £128.3m.

A CalMac spokesman said: “Any issues with a vessel on one part of the network will have knock-on effects for other routes, as boats need to be diverted or deployed elsewhere to keep the lifeline network running. The working life expectancy of a ferry deployed on routes like those on Scotland’s western seaboard is around 25 years, so with nearly half of the ferries working these routes already beyond that milestone - and having been used intensively during those years of service - the risk of mechanical failures and breakdown is significant”.