SCOTTISH ministers are being asked to intervene to save lifeline services on the Western Isles following concerns over cuts to two routes which it is feared will cost two islands up to £2m a year in lost income.

One option involves cutting the capacity of the 21-year-old MV Hebrides, which normally carries 612 passengers and 90 cars, by 20%.

Councillors on Comhairle nan Eilean Siar say the Scottish Government have a "legal obligation" to act as it is believed to be "at odds" with the 2018 Islands Act that promises to support islands and meet their unique needs.

The ferry which serves on two routes across the Little Minch to Harris and Uist was due to be replaced by one of two new ferries languishing in Ferguson Marine's Port Glasgow shipyard three years ago.

This comes alongside rejection of plans for a separate option, to amend the timetable to North Uist and Harris cutting frequency and moving sailings to unsocial hours.

Comhairle nan Eilean Siar has called on the Scottish Government to ensure the lifeline ferry services to North Uist and Harris are maintained at a level committed to in the Clyde and Hebrides Ferry Services contract that ministers awarded to CalMac.

The concerns comes as CalMac propose to remove the capacity available on the ferry's mechanical Mezzanine deck.

Due to Covid concerns CalMac previously removed the Mezzanine deck earlier in 2021 which councillors complained caused "major capacity constraints" on the routes across the Little Minch even in times when travel demand was suppressed by lockdown restrictions.

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Comhairle nan Eilean Siar say the proposal from CalMac will mean the communities who have already suffered from lost capacity due to the failure to complete the new vessel now face the "hammer blow" of cut that they say was already recognised as insufficient a decade ago.

The council says the routes operated by MV Hebrides are already the "third most capacity constrained" on CalMac’s network and the certain consequence of this proposal will mean the routes become "impossible to book" at busy periods of the year.

The council believe the need to cut capacity has arisen as the demand for travel on the route has seen an increase in the frequency of mezzanine deck deployment with CalMac identifying a need for additional crew to maintain the timetable and there is an unwillingness to meet this cost.

Uisdean Robertson, the council's transportation and infrastructure committee chairman said: “This proposal to reduce capacity on MV Hebrides is completely unacceptable and I am asking the Transport Minister to step in and ensure that this proposal is overturned.

HeraldScotland:

"We are between a rock and a hard place in terms of options. I have said there is a third option. And that is to make sure the vessel is crewed appropriately, in other words provide extra crew, so that they can keep to the timetable. They need to keep to what was promised in the contract in terms of capacity.

“Whether this cost falls on CalMac or Transport Scotland is immaterial to islanders who should rightly expect a lifeline ferry service contract to be maintained on the terms it was awarded. The only option that is acceptable is to maintain the timetable and vessel capacity that was committed to under the contract.

"We were supposed to get a new ferry in 2018 because it was shown there was a need for more capacity. Now three years later and they are decreasing capacity. "They don't seem to want to spend the money on extra crewing or doing what they need to do.

"The Harris Forum believe the reduction in capacity would probably cost the Harris economy alone £1m. So across the islands it could be £2m lost to the economy."

In April, Seven Uist community councils hit out at having "front row seats for a national scandal" over Scotland's failing lifeline ferry services.

They demanded action having just seen services disrupted after CalMac's largest ferry MV Loch Seaforth was taken off the Ullapool-Stornoway route to be taken into dry dock for "major" engine repairs that took weeks to complete.

They registered their concerns saying the "rusting hulk" of a potential ferry replacement known as Hull 802 which would serve them remains under construction at Ferguson Marine in Port Glasgow three years after it was due to enter service on the Uig-Lochmaddy-Tarbert triangle. It may not be in service until February, 2023.

They said they are the first communities to lose services when a vessel breaks down across the network as the elderly MV Lord of the Isles is removed from her normal beat covering Lochboisdale to Mallaig.

Two lifeline ferries, Glen Sannox and Hull 802 being built at Ferguson Marine were due to be in service in early 2018 but now well over four years behind schedule and their cost is now over double the original £97m contract.

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 CalMac's ships on behalf of the Scottish government - over the construction of the ferries under the fixed price contract.

HeraldScotland: Pictures Mark Gibson Newsquest Media Group.Pictured Fergusons Owner Jim McColl.First Minister Nicola Sturgeon made a visit to Ferguson Marine shipbuilders in Port Glasgow this morning to reveal that the firm is the preferred tenderer for a

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.

Council leader Roddie Mackay added: “A failure to act on the issue of a ferry fleet whose capacity is insufficient and timetables are too infrequent is preventing islands from developing. This proposal is worse as it shows a government contract deliberately altered to save money with no consideration of the damage it will do. “This government proudly implemented an Islands Act in 2018. This proposal is completely at odds with the Act and Ministers must complete a full Islands Impact Assessment so they understand the harm that will be caused and their legal obligation under the Act to step in to prevent this.”

A CalMac spokesman said: "We are consulting on behalf of Transport Scotland on timetable options for the route, as the growth in demand means we cannot operate as we did in 2019. No decisions have been made and we would encourage any further feedback to be provide to Comhairle Nan Eileen Siar so they can capture the full views of the community."

A Transport Scotland spokesman said: “As CalMac have indicated, the summer timetable is a proposal which is out for consultation and no decisions on it have been taken. We look forward to hearing feedback from local communities.

“We have announced investment of £580 million in ports and vessels to support and improve Scotland’s ferry services over the next five years, as part of our wider Infrastructure Investment Plan, unveiled in February.

“We continue to work constructively with partners and key stakeholders to progress a sustainable and efficient fleet replacement programme.

“An invitation to tender for an additional new Islay vessel has been announced which will help to grow the island’s economy. The Islay route is one of the busiest services for freight on the Clyde and Hebrides network and these new vessels will help to grow the island’s economy, as well as bring added resilience to the fleet as a whole, including through the redeployment of the relatively youthful MV Finlaggan.

“A deal to purchase the MV Utne has been agreed, bringing further resilience to the fleet. The vessel has been earmarked for the Oban-Craignure (Mull) route, and communities in Skye and the Western Isles will also benefit as a result of the cascade of vessels elsewhere on the network.

“In addition, CMAL are now working on further major vessel replacement projects for Mull and South Uist and replacement freight ships for Orkney and Shetland.”