STATE-OWNED ferry operator CalMac has defended a further delay of the launch of its £18m booking and ticketing platform - ten years after it was first planned.

The project called Ar Turas (Our Journey) was to revolutionise the way in which CalMac interacts with customers, making travel simpler and easier and replace the existing 25-year-old ticketing process.

The ferry operator said that the state-of-the-art system, will give customers greater choice on the purchase, management, and use of tickets. Tickets booked online will no longer have to be printed off at home or collected from a port office.

CalMac said it would allow for better capacity management and allow it to better control the use of deck space on CalMac’s major vessels.

The delayed system was said to be a factor in delays over the production of vital summer lifeline island ferry timetables which were put off by up to three months, with concerns about the affect on tourism.

After a number of amended start dates, CalMac said the new system will go live across its port and ferry network on April 25.

But now it has emerged that it will not, with the launch deferred yet again till May 16 while CalMac seeks to resolve major disruptions to lifeline services due to issues with sidelined ferries that need repairs discovered during annual overhauls.

CalMac chief executive Robbie Drummond has told users that while the new system is "tested and ready to go" it was decided to defer the launch "to enable full focus and recovery on the current disruption".

READ MORE: Scots firms get nothing from £220m ferry deals given to Turkey

He responded to one concerned user worried about how office staff can get a chance to get up to scratch on the new system when they are having to deal with bookings of the folk that there sailings have disrupted during "this ferry crisis".

Elliott Bowman told Mr Drummond: They currently have all the stress trying to get passengers on sailings also try and get freight on ferries too. [There's] only so much you can push people especially your front line staff. I do think you should actually be making sure they’re ok. If it wasn’t for them the job wouldn’t get done.

"I do think you should be awaiting to launch the new system once all routes are running back to normal at this rate god knows when that will be."

Mr Drummond responded: "Our staff are fully embedded in our ticketing project at all levels, including seconded front-line port and customer care colleagues. I am the sponsor, but we take collaborative decisions in the best interest of our customers and staff. One of our three core values is people first, and we will always have full regard for the wellbeing of our staff who are working with incredible commitment and good humour in difficult circumstances."

The Herald: Vehicles board the CalMac ferry MV Bute at Wemyss Bay for Rothesay (Colin Mearns)

There had previously been growing concern about how long it had taken for the system to materialise, and how it has affected the costs of the project, which some have complained are couched in too much secrecy.

Initial contract estimates had put an eight-year booking and ticketing software contract at between £3m and £9m. CalMac say the “whole life costs” will actually be £18m.

A resurrected attempt to bring in a system which began over four years ago hoped to have a core first phase of a system in place by the summer of 2020.

Ministers were told that after a series of further delays it was not expected till the spring of this year.

One ferry user official said that the new delays was "yet another ridiculous chapter in the story of Scotland's ferry chaos".

"It is, of course, right that CalMac should prioritise in what it is a ferry crisis, but really we should never ever have been put in this position in the first place."

The new system has been called eBooking after being selected following consultation and engagement with more than 4,500 CalMac customers.

READ MORE: 'Catastrophic': Island 'inaccessible' claim after  70 per cent ferry fare rise

Those who made a booking prior to April 25 were to have their booking transferred across to the new system. They would then receive a new e-ticket, issued to their email inbox.

Moves for the provision of a new ticketing system to replace the outdated one first emerged in October, 2013, when the ferry operator issued an invitation to tender.

CalMac had hoped to have a new ticketing system in place for winter 2015 as part of a business modernisation project put in place to help it retain an eight-year contract for the Clyde and Hebrides ferry service.

ATOS IT Services entered into an agreement with CalMac’s parent company David MacBrayne Limited two years before the ferry operator won the contract.

It came as David MacBrayne in 2015 was required to negotiate, and pay a very substantial fee for, a temporary extension of the old Compass system that had been in use for 25 years.

That came after the business had slumped to a pre-tax loss of £2.6m in the 2014/15 financial year, with the firm at the time saying that investment in technology had had a major impact on its bottom line.

When announcing the results in 2015 chairman David McGibbon said that “increased investment in developing new technology to improve the customer experience, through more flexible online ticketing and digital platforms” had contributed to the loss.

CalMac's promo video for the new system.

But the contract ended up being at the centre of a legal row, and in 2018, a judge at the Court of Session ordered the IT firm to pay £1.2m in compensation to David MacBrayne over a contractual dispute over the provision of a ticketing system.

According to court documents, there were significant delays on the project and in July, 2015, there was an agreement to “suspend performance of their obligations” under the contract.

Lawyers for the ferry operator argued that ATOS breached the terms of a contract made with them by failing to provide the new reservation system.

In a row reminiscent of that which dogged the provision of the two CalMac ferries, ATOS argued it had acted properly and that David MacBrayne had “materially contributed” to delays and failures by failing to fulfil certain responsibilities, including setting out the detail which was needed to full the contract requirements, including approving specifications and requesting items that were not in the scope of deal. This was denied by David MacBrayne.

READ MORE: Anger as CMAL sends execs on £1000-a-night Med conference cruise

David MacBrayne terminated the contract with ATOS in July 2016 after the computer specialists failed to show they had taken steps needed to ensure the new system was being installed.

David MacBrayne insisted that ATOS had breached the contract and was entitled to terminate the agreement and sought damages.

In a written judgment Lord Doherty stated “I am satisfied that it was reasonable of (David MacBrayne) to act as it did.”

The case meant that the ticketing system was put on hold and CalMac were expected to re-examine the project to replace the Compass ticketing system, before any tendering process restarted.

Despite not having the new ticketing system in place, David MacBrayne, which had faced stiff competition from private company Serco, won the £1bn tender for the Clyde and Hebrides service.

The latest attempts to find a contractor to supply a “modern, commercial, off the shelf and market-proven ferry booking and ticketing software solution” can be traced back to 2018 when ministers were told procurement was delayed.

A contract award worth £2.75m was eventually made to company called E-Dea in December, 2020.

CalMac told suppliers that the first phase of the core ticketing and reservations implementation was hoped to start in the summer of 2020.