SCOTLAND'S £1m-a-month emergency ferry is expected to finally be released for service to try and ease island disruption - after it emerged that new support is being provided in the wake of the grounding of MV Pentalina.

State subsidised ferry operator NorthLink has stepped up its response to the suspension of Pentland Firth services by rival firm Pentland Ferries by introducing extra crossings on Friday, Saturday and Monday evenings.

Ferry services to and from Orkney face nearly two weeks of cancellations after the MV Pentalina ran aground last month.

Pentland Ferries has been using either MV Pentalina or MV Alfred to sail across the Pentland Firth from Gills Bay in Caithness to St Margaret's Hope on the Orkney Islands.

Ministers sanctioned the nine-month charter of MV Alfred as an 'emergency' vessel to try and ease the effect of the nation's ferry fiasco at a cost of £9m.

And there was uncertainty over when MV Alfred will set sail while moored in the port of Ayr.  It has since moved to Ardrossan.

But now CalMac have confirmed that MV Alfred will commence service with CalMac on Friday.

Following a review of network status, and as Arran should have a two-vessel service on its main route at this time, MV Alfred will be initially deployed between Ardrossan and Brodick.

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But the scheduling of extra crossings between Stromness and Scrabster from this Friday throughout the rest of this month until the end of June, is understood to mean that MV Alfred will be able to be introduced as the 'emergency' vessel for longsuffering islanders serviced by Scottish Government-owned ferry operator CalMac.

The Herald: MV Alfred visits Ardrossan for a trial

MV Alfred.

On Friday, Pentland Ferries said that issues found after berthing trials meant the vessel could not yet enter service.

While trials to test MV Alfred on certain west coast ports have been completed, CalMac had previously sweated over when it would be deployed as Pentland Ferries conducted a service of hydraulic systems.

The vessel is to introduced into service on a non-bookable, turn up and go basis for the first two weeks to "allow for familiarisation and to ascertain if the passage time and turnaround times are realistic".

She will operate two return services a day and will berth overnight in Ardrossan. 

CalMac said that as her deployment is focused on resilience, onboard catering facilities will not be provided.

The berthing trials have shown that the ports suitable for MV Alfred are Lochmaddy on North Uist, Ullapool, Brodick, Ardrossan (Irish berth only), Troon and Campbeltown.

Due to a technical issue with the vessel’s starboard thruster, she is unable to be deployed to Port Askaig on Islay.

CalMac said Pentland Ferries "continue to work on mitigations to resolve this".

CalMac said more extensive ramp modifications are required for Troon and Campbeltown deployment "so that restrictions on traffic types can be removed".

The ferry operator said: "We are currently assessing the scope of works required and the timelines for delivery."

The Herald: MV Alfred

In the interim, if MV Alfred was deployed at Troon or Campbeltown, traffic would be restricted on these routes for commercial use only.

Robbie Drummond, CalMac chief executive said: “We very much welcome the introduction into service of MV Alfred and the resilience that she will offer. Her addition should mitigate the impact of disruption or when certain islands are reduced to single vessel service.

“The main route to and from Arran has been operating with one vessel for some time, so the addition of MV Alfred will provide much-needed support to the local community.”

Northlink has seen demand from passengers and vehicles rise by more than half since Pentland Ferries was forced to suspend its service between Orkney and Gills Bay at the end of April.

It had already established an extra return crossing on Sundays to help fill the gap left by the Pentalina after it ran aground in Orkney last month.

Pentland Ferries cancelled all sailings from Gills Bay in Caithness to St Margaret's Hope on the Orkney Islands in the wake of MV Pentalina's grounding up to and including May 21.

Smoke was detected in the engine room of the MV Pentalina on April 29 before it grounded near the village of St Margaret’s Hope on the island, leading to the evacuation of 60 passengers, including three children and an infant.

Investigations continue to be carried out by the Marine Accident Investigation Branch and the Maritime and Coastguard Agency into the MV Pentalina.

On April 19, MV Pentalina, which was once being considered for use by CalMac was granted a temporary passenger ship safety certificate (PSSC) by the Maritime and Coastguard Agency (MCA), allowing it to carry passengers and vehicles.

It came amidst a series of breakdowns of ferries controlled by Scottish Government-backed ship and harbour owner Caledonian Maritime Assets Limited and operated by Scottish Government-owned CalMac while two long-delayed lifeline vessels being built by sister shipyard firm Ferguson Marine remain incomplete with delays of over five years and costs quadrupling.

The Herald: 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 previous Ferguson Marine owner, tycoon Jim McColl, who rescued the yard when it went bust in 2014, blamed repeated design changes by CMAL which owns and procures ferries for the issues in building the vessels for operator CalMac, which is also publicly-owned. CMAL have blamed the shipyard firm.

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Ministers confirmed there was a possibility that MV Alfred may return to Orkney to cover for MV Pentalina - even though they say there was no contractual obligation.

But an announcement is expected today confirming MV Alfred's introduction to the CalMac fleet on the nine-month charter.

MV Alfred was due to join the fleet from April 18 but was delayed because Pentland Ferries had previous issues with MV Pentalina - meaning it had to hold the vessel back.

But it was further delayed.

MV Alfred was completed berthing trials last Tuesday at Campbeltown and Troon. She has already been to Ullapool, Lochmaddy, and Port Askaig.

The vessel, currently at the centre of a crash investigation dating back to the summer of last year, is chartered from Pentland Ferries who will operate services on behalf of CalMac.

Video: MV Pentalina on trials berthing in Oban in 2021 when it was being considered as a support vessel.

Concerns have been raised about the expense of the vessel with critics calling it a "panicked decision".

Pentland Ferries staff, who will operate services on behalf of Scottish Government-owned CalMac, bought MV Alfred for £14m in 2019 to operate between Caithness and Orkney.

MV Alfred was built in Vietnam and can accommodate 430 passengers and 98 cars, or 54 cars and 12 articulated vehicles/coaches.