This article appears as part of the Scotland's Ferries newsletter.

The Scottish Government-owned ferry operator CalMac has declared an 'aim' to limit the impact of disruption to services to a week at a time – in the wake of a row over how it copes with breakdowns of its ageing fleet.

The approach has come in full details of planned new strategy used to deliver lifeline services when a major vessel cannot be used.

The review came in the wake of an outcry as South Uist was once again the victim of cuts when ferry breakdowns and delays in annual maintenance meant that islanders lost their service for nearly the whole of June.

It drew the short straw, because it is felt according to the way CalMac runs its lifeline service disruption management, that the least number of people would be affected if their allocated vessel, MV Lord of the Isles, is withdrawn to help out elsewhere.

But while the rethink is seen as "progress" there is concern in some quarters that it does not go far enough and that there is no firmer commitment to limiting disruption.

The proposed approach states: "We will aim to limit the impact on any single route to around one week at a time".

It also says that they will "also look to spread available vessels across one to two routes even if this results in less optimal deployment and reduced vessel availability". The ferry operator said this may mean multiple deployment plans are put in place that "change across the period of disruption".

Another plan which states that the Ardrossan to Campbeltown and Mallaig to Armadale on the Isle of Skye route should be disrupted first when there is a need to redeploy vessels was seen by some as not a big change as it is said they would normally be among the first services to be hit.

The Scottish Government ordered CalMac to review the current Route Prioritisation Matrix to ensure this is taking into account the actual economic impacts to islands in the wake of a major demonstration by islanders over cuts.

In June, an estimated 500 residents, 200 cars, 40 vans and 20 lorries converged on Lochboisdale – the port which links South Uist to the mainland – in a protest over CalMac's decision to cancel almost every ferry service in June to the island due to continuing problems with breakdowns with the ageing fleet.

The proposed changes put forward by CalMac do not reference economic impact.

But CalMac admit that the past approach had "limitations" that need further consideration including that "lower volume routes are disproportionately impacted by disruption and typical high-volume tourist routes are being prioritised over islanders".

It said it also had to consider that cancellations which last more than one week "can be challenging for communities to sustain".

It said that some routes like Ardrossan to Campbeltown and Mallaig to Armadale have land links but are often prioritised alongside island routes, "creating further disparity".

It accepted that the factors which are used to inform decision making are "not always clear or well communicated meaning communities are not always aware or understanding of the reason that certain decisions are made".

The Herald:

And it added that another limitation was that there "is no way to include the community voice within the decision-making process which can mean the decisions don’t always fully reflect the realities of the challenges at a local level".

John Daniel Peteranna of the South Uist Business Impact Group, which organised June's island demonstration said that he thought that the limiting impacts on any single route to no more than a week should be more than an aim but a guarantee.

He said the proposals were "progress" but added: "If the clarity isn't there and our interpretation is wrong they will have to line up with our interpretation.

"The only benefit I see is if there was a guarantee that you wouldn't be disrupted for more than a week. The current situation is that a vessel will break, they are old. The situation will happen again.

"The hope is that disruption is limited to a week and disruption is shared."

SNP Argyll and Bute councillor John Armour, the Campbeltown ferry committee chairman said that he felt that Campbeltown was among the first to be disrupted anyway and should not need to be prioritised.  

The summer Ardrossan to Campbeltown service this year never got started this year due to the redeployment of vessels to cope with the loss of one of CalMac's oldest vessels, the 38-year-old MV Hebridean Isles which has been beset with technical problems.

He said: "You can't expect islands to suffer and leave mainland routes on.

"From what I see it is not a big change.

"It isn't okay but if there is no ferries to cover there is not a lot that can be done.

"It is unsatisfactory we don't have enough ferries but we are not unreasonable. We are annoyed we don't have a service but we have a road out. It needs Transport Scotland and Calmac to work together so that Campbeltown doesn't suffer like that in future."

The proposed criteria for the route prioritisation framework also states that CalMac will "communicate more clearly the factors which influenced vessel deployment decision and prioritisation, including all options considered and discounted".

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It says that it will "consult with community representatives before making vessel deployment decisions" and that a process for this is still being developed.

Regarding the consultation, the ferry firm said in the document: "We genuinely understand how crucial our services are to each community. When we face such challenges, we use the Route Prioritisation Framework to decide how best to distribute services so that they can benefit the most people.

"We don’t have spare vessels on standby, but we are constantly striving to improve and ensure that disruptions are minimised.

"Your patience and understanding through this process means a lot to us, and we're always here to listen and adapt.

CalMac chief executive Robbie Drummond said: "CalMac is investing record sums in vessel maintenance to maintain service resilience along with improvements to managing logistics, quality management of dry docks and preventative measures.

"However, we have no spare vessels and when we suffer a technical breakdown, we have to prioritise maintaining lifeline services to all communities. We are committed to making the prioritisation process more transparent, and we are consulting on how the process could be improved, following a formal Island Community Impact Assessment (ICIA) process.

"The consultation includes changes proposed following initial consultation with the Ferries Community Board and Transport Scotland. The public consultation is ongoing, and we are encouraging our customers and communities to take part and share their views.

“All ideas are welcome and the public consultation is open until midnight on 24 September 2023."

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