ISLAND groups are embarking on claims for Scottish Government compensation for damaged trade in the wake of a string of breakdowns due to the nation's ageing ferry fleet.

Concerns have been raised about wide disruption caused by cuts in the car and passenger numbers that are capable of being transported because smaller vessels have had to replace larger ones that have needed repairs.

CalMac have apologised saying that they are  "working with an ageing fleet, with more than 38% exceeding 30 years of age and increasing challenges around obsolescence and obtaining parts".

Transport minister Kevin Stewart said he was "sympathetic" to calls for compensation but made no commitment.

The capacity restrictions and timetable disruption has been felt throughout the early summer timetable period, caused by delays to the winter overhaul - as a result of issues uncovered with vessels.

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The development has been prompted by ferry services to and from the island of Mull being plunged into a "free-for-all" on Saturday after ferry operator CalMac indicated they had no hope of honouring bookings.

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There have been complaints lodged with the Scottish Government-controlled ferry operator CalMac over the newly launched ticketing system being riddled with issues.

There has also been problems caused the failure of Corran Ferry, the busiest single-vessel route in Scotland that carries more than 270,000 cars each year. There has not been a car ferry on the five-minute crossing of Loch Linnhe for three weeks because of issues with the main vessel and a relief boat.

The Herald:

People travelling between Oban and Craignure on the island of Mull, were told on Saturday that "due to reduced capacity" all sailings would operate on a "turn up and go basis".

It meant that while tickets were valid they were not guaranteed to be on the sailing that they booked for - while some had to queue for hours to get a ferry later than intended.

There are concerns that the continuing concerns over the state of the ferry fleet is putting travellers off from heading to the islands this summer.

Now a coalition of Mull and Iona groups is carrying out a major survey of local businesses to try and quantify the extent of the damage done to busineses with a view to requesting compensation from the Scottish Government.

In the latest wave of issues, complaints were raised about cancelled bookings on the Mull service, and hours of waiting, as others abandoned efforts to go via Oban and made a 100-mile detour to reach the island via Lochaline. The distance would have been cut in half had the Corran ferry been running.

One said that the detour to Lochaline took four hours and told CalMac: "Appalling service."

The Herald: Craignure ferry terminal

The Mull and Iona Ferry Committee warned that there was "not entirely unexpected" delays in the return of its key vessel the 35-year-old MV Isle of Mull because the dry-docking of MV Hebrides was taking longer than expected - a situation that has hit a string of vessels in the CalMac fleet in recent months.

The Isle of Mull has been the victim of a CalMac shuffle of its ageing fleet to allow for it to serve South Uist.

This had left Mull's two-ferry service with MV Coruisk, which takes 40 cars and 200 passengers filling in for a vessel that can carry nearly five times the passengers and nearly double the number.

But CalMac told users on Friday evening that due to the "turn up and go" operation communications would be issued to those who could not be accommodated while all other customers were to be accepted on a standby basis.

They said that the two vessels "unexpectedly running" the service were "not big enough to carry all bookings so we have had to make the difficult decision to operate first come, first served".

In a message to users, CalMac stated: "We appreciate this is causing great inconvenience, but our port team are currently doing all that they can to transport traffic to and from Mull with significantly limited capacity due to the current vessel arrangement. "

But the ferry operator was bombarded with concerns from users over the move.

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Joe Reade, chairman of the Mull and Iona Ferry Committee said that the communications over the issue "made a drama out of a crisis.".

The Herald:

Now the Mull and Iona Ferry Committee have teamed up with the community councils of Mull and Iona, Mull & Iona Community Trust, North West Mull Community Woodland and South West Mull and Iona Development, to open survey to measure the economic impact of recent ferry disruption.

Mr Reade said there was now a "real concern" about the effect the reliaiblity of the ferry service was having local businesses "both now and in the future".

The committee said they had heard about delivery delays and building project disruption, cancelled accommodation bookings, lower footfall as result of fewer day trippers, boat trips running with very few passengers, island exporters missing deliveries, coach tours denied carriage and tourists uncertain if they can get to the island.

Businesses have been invited from Mull and Iona as well as those who do business there to complete the survey so that the scale of the economic impact can be measured.

"Many businesses are significantly down on sales. We will be surveying local businesses on the impact, with a view to requesting a support package from Scottish Government," said Mr Reade.

From Sunday afternoon the MV Isle of Mull returned and he added: "The message to visitors is very firmly – We are open for business!"

It comes after more than 30 bugs and problems have been raised with CalMac over the new electronic ticketing system including some vessels being unable to sell tickets because their internet connection is inadequate.

The Mull and Iona Ferry Committee reported issues with overbooking meaning that people who have had sailings bought in advance were having them cancelled.

Other problems reported included finding that some routes were wrongly stating that there were no sailings at all, the system listing ports that do not exist and repeated difficulties with users being unable to log into their accounts.

Robert Morrison, CalMac’s operations director, said: “We take our responsibility to support island communities, economies and businesses very seriously and I’m sorry for the disruption to services which we know can be extremely challenging for customers.

“There have been some issues with the new booking and ticketing platform which is to be expected with a change project of this size and complexity.

“Since launch, 220,000 accounts and 145,000 bookings have been migrated across. Our senior management team is meeting twice daily to progress and resolve any issues, as well as working closely with our supplier.

“Delays to the annual maintenance schedule meant that we experienced a short-term constraint on service capacity between Oban and Craignure. A full service returned to this route on the afternoon of Sunday 28 May with MV Isle of Mull returning to service alongside MV Loch Frisa.

“During the period of disruption, we made it a priority to find the best solution for customers including the addition of a second vessel running to and from Mull via Lochaline-Fishnish. Due to the closure of Castlebay linkspan, our vessel deployment options were limited, and this impacted on the support we could offer.

“We are working with an ageing fleet, with more than 38% exceeding 30 years of age and increasing challenges around obsolescence and obtaining parts.

“We apologise for the recent disruption and recognise that this has been extremely challenging for our customers and local communities.

Mr Stewart said: “I fully understand the challenges facing our island communities during this period of disruption to ferry services. This is not just about transport performance in itself. It’s about delivering the confidence needed to sustain island populations.

“Regrettably, there have been ongoing technical issues with vessels resulting in delays to the annual overhaul programme and cancellation of sailings. There are communities who have been greatly impacted and we fully recognise the need to improve confidence in services. We continue to work with CalMac and CMAL to improve reliability and resilience across our networks. We are also reinvesting any penalty deductions into the operation of the network.

“Operational decisions regarding the Clyde and Hebrides Ferry Services lie with CalMac as the operator. They engage with individual customers, hauliers, port operators, and Local Resilience Partnerships to gather information and to make informed decisions on how best to deploy available assets in a safe and efficient manner for the benefit of our island and remote communities.

“Whilst sympathetic to the calls to support businesses through compensation, our focus rightly has to be on building resilience into the ferry network.

“I also absolutely recognise the unavailability of the Corran Ferry is causing major disruption for communities, businesses and visitors to the area. This is a matter for The Highland Council and we look forward to the outcome of the initial assessment by the MOD which will assist in identifying possible next steps. We will continue our close engagement with the Council throughout this process.

“As indicated previously, I would be happy to visit Lochaber to learn more about The Highland Council’s plans for the Corran Ferry, recognising they have ultimate responsibility for any decisions on maintenance, upgrades, or options to replace ferries.”