MINISTERS have been accused of restricting islanders' human right of freedom of movement through a "discriminatory" first-come-first-service booking service for lifeline ferries which is seeing them having to book three to four weeks in advance just to get on and off.

Transport Scotland has been told that the system is "prejudiced" against people who have to make journeys at short notice, and prioritises those who can book in advance.

Ferry users groups have said that the issues have never previously been an issue because the ferries were not so congested.

But demand has been stimulated by by a new charging structure which has led to an estimated average fare reduction of 34% for passengers and 40% for car traffic on the CalMac network.

Islanders are competing for spaces on ferries as those planning a Staycation breaks to the islands during continuing Covid concerns who can book weeks or months ahead of time, so those travellers fill up the bookings first.

With a new IT and ticketing system due to be introduced this year, islanders have called for the scrapping of the ‘first-come, first-served’ principle.

The Mull and Iona Ferry Committee are have told the transport minister Graeme Dey that there has to be better management of ferries to ensure that island residents are prioritised.

A Mull and Iona ferry committee spokesman said: "We have written to Transport Scotland about the urgent need for reform of the booking system, but there is no sign of any action being taken.

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"Lack of capacity in conjunction with an unfair booking system makes the ferry system less available to the islanders to whom it is supposed to provide a lifeline."

"Allocation of space on that basis is inherently prejudiced against island residents, who cannot plan every journey weeks in advance in order to secure a space. Fundamentally, this is a restriction of the freedom of movement for islanders.

"Not all travel can be planned so far ahead of time.

"The type of travel that falls into this kind of short-notice category is overwhelmingly that undertaken by island residents. So if we decide a few days before the weekend that we’d like to go shopping in Oban; we can’t.

"If we need to attend a funeral, a medical appointment, or have any need to travel that can’t be foreseen a month in advance, our ticket has lower priority than holiday makers and sightseers who planned their one trip many months ago."

In July, one resident of Mull asking to book a pickup and livestock trailer to Oban was told the next available space for him on a Saturday was in October.

The issues have been exacerbated with a series of breakdowns to the CalMac fleet of 31 ageing ferries during the busy summer tourism period which have raised concerns about the continuing resilience of vessels.

Sam Bourne, chairman of the Arran Ferry Action Group supported calls for changes saying passengers were being hampered by what he called the "outdated booking system"

"In peak periods, and increasingly becoming a problem across the year, it is near-impossible to access sailings at short notice with a car," he said. "This effectively discriminates against islanders who are unable to book many weeks in advance to travel for essential work or family reasons, or more importantly, to access critical health care appointments at the mainland hospitals. If you are lucky enough to get a booking, you are still at risk of late cancellation. Stand-by systems also give little priority to all but the most urgent scenarios."


One bereaved Mull islander could not get a ferry booking to return from her husband’s funeral in Glasgow in mid-December.

CalMac staff intervened, however, and enabled her eventually to return home. "Could anyone really defend a first-come-first-served booking system as fair, if it prioritises sightseers ahead of that lady, simply because the sightseers had booked earlier than her," said one Mull ferry committee source. "Of course not. "It should not require back-channel communications and the intervention of a users’ group to enable a lady to get a return from her husband's funeral."

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Ferry users say a proportion of deck space should be bookable for island residents only and essential travellers, such as GPs.

They say travellers should be encourage to use particular sailings.

Businesses are among those who are supporting moves for a rethink.

John MacDonald, a Mull haulage contractor said: “The booking system, if not the system as a whole, is now so dysfunctional that it is easier for me to bypass it entirely and travel almost exclusively on the non-bookable smaller vessels. I get much greater certainty of travel from the much more dependable and frequent small-ferry service – even though it makes my journeys longer, inflating both cost and fuel burn."

Heather Hull, another islanders added: “Booking ferries so far in advance is absurd. There are lots of things to be taken into account. Work commitments, school days and cancellation of certain ferries."

The issues come as would-be ferry replacements MV Glen Sannox and Hull 802 are still languishing in the now state-owned Ferguson Marine's shipyard with completion running up to five years late and costs of their construction more than doubling from the original £97m contract. MV Glen Sannox was originally due to enter the Ardrossan to Arran service in the summer of 2018.


Some 16 of CalMac's 31 working ferries deployed across Scotland are over 25 years old while Caledonian Maritime Assets Ltd (CMAL), the Scottish Government-controlled owners and purchasers of Scotland's ferries have quietly raised the 'depreciation' period of Scotland's ferries from 20 years to 35 years in the space of just 13 years.

Joe Reade, co-founder and chief executive of The Island Bakery on Mull, and chairman of the local ferry committee said: "There are laws in other spheres of life to prevent the kind of systemic discrimination seen on ferries – notably of course in employment law. I can’t as an employer discriminate on grounds of gender for example, either directly or indirectly.

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"If I advertised a job vacancy but stipulated that applicants should have had continuous employment for 20 years since leaving full-time education, I would be indirectly excluding female applicants, since most would have had employment breaks to have children.

"I could argue that I’m trying to select candidates with good work experience, and that otherwise the job is open to all fairly – but I would rightly be challenged on grounds of gender discrimination. I would have placed qualification hurdles in the application criteria that were indirectly and systemically prejudiced against women.

"This is exactly what the ticketing system does – It is claimed to be ‘fair’ because it does not discriminate between who is buying a ticket, but it places a key qualification hurdle in front of potential travellers – you must be able to plan your journey three or four weeks in advance."

In December a plan to raise the fares of motorhomes was seen as early piece of ‘demand management’ by Transport Scotland.

While general fares are rising by around two per cent, the road equivalent tariff (RET) formula applied to motorhomes is to be adjusted, resulting in increases for motorhomes of around 50-70% next year.

RET is a distance-based fares structure brought in after the Scottish Government committed to provide one single overarching fares policy across the country’s entire ferry network.

The pricing system was introduced originally on a trial basis in 2008 by the Scottish Government. It saw the cost of sailings brought down to match a formula generated by the government so that ferry tickets would, theoretically, cost no more than an equivalent journey on the road.

It is estimated that RET is now costing the Scottish Government around £25 million per annum in revenue support, of which around two-thirds is attributable to RET for vehicles less than six metres in length.

But many islanders are angry at the scheme as commercial vehicles are not included, which can send the cost of goods spiralling due to transport costs.

A Transport Scotland spokesman said: “Capacity will continue to be managed across the ferry network. No welfare issues or supply issues as a consequence of service disruption have been reported to CalMac, nor through local resilience partnerships, but the position will continue to be monitored. CalMac Ferries Ltd (CFL) does its best to assist passengers with a need to travel, particularly those with medical appointments, and will always do everything possible to accommodate passengers on alternative sailings.”