A coalition of island hauliers are taking legal advice in a row over a ferry user priority list brought in by Scottish Government-owned operator CalMac in the midst of continuing disruption to lifeline services.

A 'disruption management traffic prioritisation framework' has emerged ahead of the summer timetables coming in on March 31 and while three key vessels remain out of action.

The concerns are around general commercial traffic that block-books on the ferries, which according to the document "does not have any priority over that of non-block booked traffic".

Hauliers say that means that bookings can be removed to be given to other people in the midst of service disruptions.

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One industry insider said there were questions over what might be considered less prioritised goods which could include grain for whisky distilleries.

A group of nine key hauliers have formed a group consisting of CalMac commercial customers across the west coast ferry services network to work collectively to deal with what they described as "the many issues faced by us all due an inadequate ferry service plagued with disruptions and lack of resilience and capacity".

They say that as a result of the "deterioration of services" coupled with the priority list they are seeking legal advice over the lifeline service provision of CalMac and Transport Scotland.

The letter, written by hauliers based on the island of Tiree, Lewis, Barra, Arran, Islay and Inverness on the mainland to transport minister Jenny Gilruth and managing director of CalMac seeks an urgent meeting to resolve the problems they face.

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They said: "The financial impacts have been and continue to be felt across all island communities on the network, with no confidence that things are going to improve in the next few years."

HeraldScotland: The CalMac ferry MV Bute on the Wemyss Bay to Rothesay route. ..  Photograph by Colin Mearns.2 February 2023.

The priority list states that it is "critical" that lifeline goods and services are protected and able to travel to the islands and that vehicles carrying the goods "will take priority over all other vehicles on such sailings".

It says the priority process will be used when "all other options have been exhausted and over-booking situations become present on identified sailings".

Top of the priority list is emergency responses, the carriage of resilience critical personnel and urgent medical and veterinary supplies, including oxygen.

Then comes the carriage of fresh food, vehicles carrying fuel and those carrying livestock.

Also identified as a priority is traffic carrying prescription drugs and other medical supplies and the delivery of animal feed.

Further down the list the carriage of live shellfish for export or processing, customers with urgent medical appointments, items required by the emergency services, Royal Mail vehicles and customers requiring assistance.

And it warned: "General commercial traffic that was block booked, does not have any priority over that of non-block-booked traffic."

One industry insider said there would be concerns that commercial firms should be properly compensated if they were told that the contract was removed.

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There could also be concerns for the whisky industry and island distilleries, if supplies of grain are not able to be delivered.


"If distilleries don't have yeast or barley they cannot produce whisky," he said.

"The concern is that business is going to be adversely affected. They are making money and employing people and yet there are questions over when they can get freight on boats.

"You have a situation where there is contractual relationship and yet as it stands there is no compensation as there is for cars and passengers if they are told their booking is removed."

The priority list document said that it was "uniquely important" to prioritise "non-commercial traffic meterage first".

It went on: "If general commercial traffic meterage was to be attended to first, there is a genuine risk that the overall deadweight that can be carried for the whole sailing could be reached, and thus potentially to the detriment of all other customers. Allocating non-commercial traffic meterage first is for this reason alone, and does not in any way imply any type of priority."

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Grant Baxter, the transport manager for one of the letter signatories Lewis-based DR Macleod, said the new First Minister should make resolving the ferries disruption issues a priority.

"We are going into the summer period and CalMac are trying to operate a range of services with boats not in service or breaking down. The situation is a disaster. Where do you start and stop?

"Someone has to take control of the situation. Trying to conduct lifeline services to islands takes more than a letter of priority.

"It will have a detrimental effect on the economy of the islands which CalMac is to serve.

"We should be moving forward not in reverse."

It emerged last week that the Scottish Government has chartered the relief vessel MV Alfred from Pentland Ferries for nine months, at a cost of £1 million per month, to improve resilience in CalMac’s struggling fleet.

It has come as lifeline services across the west coast have been disrupted due to a number of vessels in the ageing fleet being out of action for repairs.


CalMac chief executive Robbie Drummond (above) said: “I am sorry for the current strain that is impacting on all users of the service. We are doing everything we possibly can to resolve the current difficulties as quickly as possible.

“We have implemented a prioritisation list to ensure that essential goods, and services are maintained to all island communities during the current disruption. This is far from ideal, but there is a lack of spare vessels that can be used for resilience purposes, and we must ensure that goods such as foods and medicines are able to be transported."

He said that over the next few weeks, MV Hebridean Isles, MV Clansman and MV Caledonian Isles should return to service while  MV Alfred will join the fleet on a nine-month charter starting on April 18.

"The primary focus for the use of MV Alfred will be to have her available for resilience purposes and provide relief benefits across the network. This should help mitigate the impact of disruption or where certain islands are reduced to single vessel service.  Although resilience availability will remain the priority, there may be opportunities to facilitate some additional, non-bookable freight sailings, when possible, to support capacity constraints," he said.

“Although this leaves us facing a difficult period with capacity during April, we expect to see this ease towards the end of the month as a result of the return of these major vessels. We will continue to talk to and listen to our commercial customers so that we can discuss how best to support them.”