THE lifeline vessel at the centre of a new Scots ferry crisis is not now expected to be back in service for another month, it has emerged.

Specialist engineers working on the MV Loch Seaforth have advised that they expect her to back in service by May 17 at the earliest.

CalMac's largest ferry MV Loch Seaforth was taken off the Ullapool-Stornoway route to be taken into dry dock for "major" engine repairs. It had been hoped the eight-year-old vessel would be back in service at the end of this month.

It is one of four vessels that have broken down in the space of three weeks.

Campaigners have described the situation as a "national scandal" and that those responsible should already have lost their jobs for the state of Scotland's ferries.

Some hauliers have contacted Pentland Ferries to find out if the MV Pentalina ferry could be chartered to provide freight services - as the current replacement can only take four lorries.

But CalMac said that while the Pentalina may be an option for a longer-term hire, she is not immediately available while the Loch Seaforth is being repaired.

She is only available for active service four weeks from when the required charter agreement is signed.

READ MORE: 'National scandal' - CalMac ferry network in crisis as four boats break down in three weeks

CalMac, the publicly funded ferry operator, had said that the MV Isle of Arran - which normally runs - on the Ardrossan to Brodick route - will be temporarily taking over the overnight freight run on the Stornoway-Ullapool route.

HeraldScotland:

And the MV Isle of Lewis has been been taken off its usual route between Castlebay on the Isle of Barra and Oban in Argyle to support the Loch Seaforth run.

The spin off effect has meant disruption to other services in the ferry network as other vessels cover for the loss, including the busy Ardrossan to Brodick service.

But while the 380ft-long MV Loch Seaforth which cost £42m can carry up to 143 cars, 700 passengers and 30 articulated lorries, the replacement Isle of Arran can only take four lorries and the Isle of Lewis can take 13.

A team is currently carrying out repairs to the engines on Loch Seaforth at the James Watt dock in Greenock.

CalMac said: "Staff are working extremely hard to ensure all customer demands are being accommodated across the network. However, passenger bookings will have to be carefully managed until the MV Loch Seaforth is back in service and the summer timetable resumes.

"While Ardrossan-Brodick will remain as a one-vessel route for the time being, sailings on the Lochranza-Claonaig route have increased, doubling in capacity, offering an alternative to accessing Arran or the mainland.

"Any passengers required to attend last-minute medical appointments will always be accommodated on CalMac routes. This includes free taxi journeys to and from the ferry terminal and their NHS destination."

Stornoway haulier D R MacLeod said: “The islands are beng held hostage by an unreliable ferry service specified in Edinburgh and delivered from Inverclyde. We do not expect that ferries can operate without technical issues but the frequency of breakdowns in the Calmac fleet should have demanded urgent action to reduce the fleet age and increase the fleet to provide better resilience.

“Instead we are promised much and given little. Ministers claim they have given CMAL the green light to charter in vessels which has not yet happened, yet it has been confirmed that the Pentalina is available and could be chartered with no crewing impact on Calmac.

“As CMAL and Calmac have failed to act local hauliers are looking at the potential to charter the vessel and put in place the service while guaranteeing that hauliers will guarantee fares revenue on an open book basis meaning Government exposure to extra costs will be minimised. Surely this is something our MPs and MSPs can get behind and support?”

CalMac said a combine timetable has been tailored to allow shellfish to be transported from Barra and South Uist to the mainland in time to get to fish markets.

It said that planning and allocating spaces for commercial customers in advance has meant that the area able to meet the demand as it is presented for shipping at ports.

Robbie Drummond, CalMac managing director said: “Clearly, the loss of the MV Loch Seaforth and how this has affected other services has caused a lot of disruption to customers, and we are so sorry about this. We are working closely with local businesses to make sure that all demand for travel is being met, and I am most grateful to them for their support, patience and understanding as we deal with this situation.

“We are confident that the MV Loch Seaforth will be back in service in a matter of weeks and the normal summer timetable will be back up and running as planned.”

The latest issues come off the back of the country's ferry building fiasco - and comes as the islands prepare to open up next week as Covid restrictions ease.

The two lifeline ferries being build at Ferguson Marine which were due to be in service in early 2018 are now up to nearly five years behind schedule and their cost is now over double the original £97m contract.

The first of the ferries the MV Glen Sannox is now destined for the Arran to Ardrossan route - Scotland's busiest ferry crossing - between April 2022 and June, 2022.

HeraldScotland:

Ferguson Marine, led by tycoon Jim McColl went into administration in August, 2019 following a dispute with Caledonian Maritime Assets Ltd (CMAL) - the taxpayer-funded company which buys and leases publicly owned CalMac's ships on behalf of the Scottish government - over the construction of the ferries under the fixed price contract.

The Scottish Government then pushed ahead to take full control of of the shipyard company as it went under with blame attached to soaring costs of the ferry contract.