CONCERNS have been raised as the replacement for a lifeline ferry service which has been pulled from service has been costed at £60m and deemed "unaffordable".

It has emerged that attempts to get Transport Scotland to intervene over the crisis-hit Corran ferry service failed months before it was pulled at the weekend and expected to be out of action for several weeks.

And the transport minister Kevin Stewart (below) has insisted that the operation of the ferries was the responsibility of Highland Council.

The Herald: Kevin Stewart MSP

It is the busiest single-vessel ferry route in Scotland, carrying more than 270,000 cars each year, but the return of the main vessel MV Corran to Lochaber has been delayed since October.

A reduced service has been in operation on the route between the Ardnamurchan peninsula and Corran which provides direct road access to Fort William, while repair work is carried out on the main MV Corran vessel.

But after the relief vessel, the Maid of Glencoul broke down on Friday, Highland Council said there could be no service for several weeks.

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MV Corran carries more than 270,000 cars across Loch Linnhe each year and without it, drivers are forced to follow diversions of up to 86 miles.

It has emerged that the Highland Council has previously warned ministers in February during a parliamentary inquiry into the future of ferry services that the risk of breakdown of the two vessels was "significant".

The two existing ferry vessels have been deemed to be in need of "urgent replacement" for some time as MV Corran is 23 years old and the relief vessel is 48 years old.

Even if an order is made now for replacements, the council has told ministers the estimated delivery was four to five years away.

People living in Fort William, Ardgour, Sunart, Ardnamurchan, Moidart, Morar, Morvern and the Isle of Mull are among those who regularly use the ferry.

It is also used by visitors to the area.

Without the ferries, a six-minute ferry journey will now take motorists on a journey of at least one hour and 16 minutes as drivers are forced to drive around Loch Linnhe.

The Corran Narrows Socio-Economic Study concluded that, in the absence of a fixed link, the provision of a frequent, reliable, and high-capacity ferry service at Corran is fundamental to the economic viability and future sustainability of the peninsula.

The council had put through a request to transfer responsibility for the service to the Scottish Government agency Transport Scotland based on principles set out in the Scottish Ferries Plan, in the hope this would pave the way for a replacements.

But the council says that the solution would have to be funded and delivered by them.

The council, meanwhile, has told ministers that it continues to face "significant budget pressures" and its latest capital programme categorised the ferries as "outwith the affordability envelope" and seen as an essential project looking to "attract inward investment" and "additional partnership funding".

Dr Michael Foxley, the former leader of Highland Council and vice chairman of Ardgour Community Council said the former transport secretary Jenny Gilruth had been asked to intervene over bringing in new ferries for over a year.

There have also been more recent attempts to try and track down a replacement second-hand ferry.

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He said: "There are second hand ferries available in Greece and in Ireland. The costs are an issue for new ferries. We have been trying to engage for a year with the former transport secretary Jenny Gilruth about getting the ferries, but the statement is that it is a council responsibility. They are reluctant to get involved.

"The problem is we don't get hard information on what is happening. It needs a short term solution."

The area’s Liberal Democrat councillor Angus MacDonald, who owns a number of businesses in Fort William including the Highland Cinema, said the costs for new replacements was "not affordable" by a council who "have had a decade of funding cuts from the Scottish Government".

He added: "We need the new Transport Minister Kevin Stewart to visit and take responsibility for the ferries, do a survey of locals and consider a tunnel or bridge as a matter of urgency. He has a budget of £4 billion pounds. The West Highlands needs some of that."

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In an open letter to Highland Council’s chief executive Kate Lackie and council leader Raymond Bremner, business owner Joanne Matheson has asked for details of the local authority’s compensation scheme.

She wrote: “My small business is heavily reliant on tourism trade.

“Many of my customers are people travelling to or from Fort William or Mallaig who decide to take the longer scenic route, making a day of it and stopping at businesses such as mine along the way.

“This type of custom was sorely hit during March because of the restricted service, but has now been eliminated entirely. I estimate that this could potentially remove up to 45% of my usual income making the business unviable.

“Were this a sudden unforeseen situation I’d have some sympathy, but Highland Council has known for twenty years that the MV Corran only had a twenty-year working life expectancy and should have started planning for replacement in 2001.

“Instead you waited until four years before the end of that timeframe to employ a project officer who then took five years to research and develop a ridiculously ambitious proposal which Highland Council has no way of funding, and would take at least six years to deliver – complete incompetence doesn’t come close to describing your failure in this matter.”

She added: “The Maid of Glencoul is even older and since it has been required to shuttle continuously to attempt to keep up with traffic since the beginning of the year, it is hardly surprising that it has now failed.

“I am confident that maintaining a ‘lifeline service’ of this sort falls within your mandatory duties, and you have failed to do so.”

Highland Council has said it would pursue temporary arrangements, such as a bus service, as soon as possible.

In a statement on Saturday, a Highland Council spokeswoman said a fault had been found with the ferry’s drive train.

“Unfortunately, due to vessel breakdown issues there will be no Corran Ferry service over the coming days.

“Unfortunately, it is highly likely there will be no service for several weeks. At present the Maid of Glencoul is to be towed to a dry dock for repairs.

Asking for the public’s understanding during this challenging time. they said the roads around Loch Linnhe would be “busier than usual”.

She said: “However, due to staff availability during tthe Easter weekend and the ferry team organising repairs this may be delayed until after Easter.

“We apologise for the inconvenience this will unfortunately cause for locals, businesses, and visitors alike, but this situation is out with our control at present.”

Minister for Transport Kevin Stewart said: “The operation of transport links across the Corran Narrows is the responsibility of the Highland Council. Any decisions on maintenance, upgrades, or options to replace ferries would be a matter for them. I would be happy to visit Lochaber in due course, to learn more about the council’s plans for the Corran Narrows.

"The previous Deputy First Minister also announced in the budget process that the Scottish Government would provide full revenue funding to Councils who run their own ferry services. Officials are in discussions with the Highland Council about these costs.”