CONCERNS have been raised over the ability to deal with emergencies in a Highland area that is expected to be without a car ferry for between six and eight weeks.

Highland Council has been unable to source a relief car ferry as it detailed an emergency plan to deal with the loss of the Corran ferry service which has been pulled after both its vessels broke down.

Two boats have been drafted in to replace the two stricken Corran ferry vessels that could together transport 42 cars - but they will be for passengers only.

Highland Council says an emergency plan for the busiest single-vessel ferry route in Scotland will remain in place for six to eight weeks.

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

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.

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But there is now concern that with no alternative car ferry it will affect the ability of the emergency services dealing with incidents.

Without the ferries, a five-minute ferry journey takes motorists on a journey of at least one hour and 20 minutes as drivers are forced to drive around Loch Linnhe.

Dr Michael Foxley, the former leader of Highland Council and vice chairman of Ardgour Community Council said: "A passenger ferry is far from ideal. There is a real issue for emergency vehicles. They would have to go the long way round.

"If you are talking about this remaining in place for six to eight weeks it is a concern."

A catamaran, operated by Cruise Loch Linnhe, has been chartered by the council for the duration of the stoppage and can accommodate 65 foot passengers. It will operate two return trips on a daily basis, seven days a week.

The first trip is due to operate from 7.45pm on Wednesday from Fort William to Ardgour.

It will be free for local residents who are able to provide proof of residency and it the council said it is hoped to increase the frequency of the shuttle service in approximately a fortnight's time if another vessel becomes available.

A second foot passenger service will be provided by a separate covered fast-rib vessel that will be able to take up to 12 foot passengers at a time across the Corran Narrows. This service will begin as soon as the boat arrives, anticipated to be early next week.

The council has so far been unable to say how much the emergency plan will cost and what will happen with emergency vehicles, freight and those needing to use a car.

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The route normally served by MV Corran, which can take 28 cars and MV Maid of Glencoul, which can take 14, carries more than 270,000 vehicles each year.

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.

The community council for Sunart, the rural district in the south west of Lochaber, is among those who have lodged complaints with Highland Council about the breakdown and have demanded an investigation into what it called a "scandal".

The cost of replacing the two ageing ferries at the centre of the new ferry fiasco is £60m and had been deemed "unaffordable" by some Highland councillors. A business case for a replacement has not identified funding for replacements.

Some locals have been calling for action over replacements for years.

One local councillor said: "Without a car ferry we remain cut off. I dread to think what will happen if there is an emergency.  Any delay will be the difference between life and death.  Any delay will be the difference between life and death." 

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Highland Council said: “Staff have been working very closely with CalMac and thanks to their assistance, we are anticipating the MV Corran will now be back in service sooner than was originally predicted. This however will be in the region of 6 to 8 weeks away, so the council has been looking at a range of mitigation measures to manage the situation."

From next week, the council’s roads teams will be carrying out improvement works to extend existing passing places on the A861 and erecting signage.

A council spokesman said: "The council wants to stress that with scenic alternative tourist routes around the peninsula available, the area is still very much open for business and anyone with holiday plans can still access all locations."

Chairman of the council’s economy and infrastructure committee, Ken Gowans said: “The last few days have been very challenging for everyone affected by the loss of service which is why we have been focussing on finding solutions and putting in place as many mitigations measures as possible.

“It is proving to be particularly challenging to identify a replacement for vehicular transport across the Narrows. However, we are continuing to explore all possible options because we understand the significant challenges this represents for local businesses and supply chains."

Highland 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 ferry replacements.

But transport minister Kevin Stewart has insisted that the operation of the ferries was the responsibility of Highland Council.

The Herald: Kevin Stewart MSP

The Highland Council 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".

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

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".

Mr Gowans said: “We also will continue to work closely with our multi-agency partners at Police Scotland, Scottish Fire and Rescue Service, NHS Highland, the Scottish Ambulance Service, and businesses to minimise any disruption. We will be issuing regular updates as and when more details become available. I thank everyone in the community for their understanding and support, especially those who have reached out to help council staff to find solutions.

“The A861 route is likely to be busier than normal and we ask all drivers to be extra considerate, to take care especially when on the single-track sections and to use the passing places to allow traffic to safely pass.”

A Highland Council spokeman said: "We have been regularly  meeting with multi-agency partners including NHS Highland, the ambulance service and the police and they are making arrangements to ensure services can be provided."