MINISTERS have been told a move to buy a second hand ferry at a tiny fraction of the cost of each of the two vessels languishing in a Port Glasgow shipyard is a mere "sticking plaster" and will not resolve an island congestion problem.

MV Utne has been bought from Norled, the Norwegian shipping company that operates 45 car ferries, but it will not be in action till next year.

But it is more than half the size of the Indonesia-built vessel campaigners wanted but could not get after a deal fell through over a row between over who was paying for the modifications.

Utne was on offer for just £5.5m.  A £9m deal to capture the ferry included the price of modifications.

It is also seen as a downgrade on the vessel it is expected to replace - the 18-year-old MV Coruisk - which can carry 30% more passengers, 17% more cars and at a 14 knot top speed was faster.

The seven-year-old Utne which carries 195 passengers and 34 cars has been earmarked for the Oban to Craignure on Mull route in the network run by Scottish Government-controlled ferry operator CalMac.

But it has emerged that Utne will take over the role of the bigger but 11-years-older MV Coruisk which can carry 250 passengers and 40 cars.

Coruisk, which was dogged with engine control problems during the summer, is expected to return to the Mallaig to Armadale service.

Local ferry campaigners are also concerned that the new vessel is a bigger downgrade on the ferry that they had been pushing for which could carry nearly twice as many passengers (350) and more than twice as many cars (80).   It was faster with a top speed of 16 knots against Utne's 12 knots.

The catamaran was similar in design to the MV Alfred owned by Pentland Ferries which has been operating to and from Orkney. 

READ MORE: One of CalMac's oldest vessels breaks down for second time in three weeks

Negotiations had been taking place to secure the Indonesia-built vessel for months to secure the ferry before the 'summer of chaos' across Scotland's ageing ferry network before they fell through in August.

It was claimed Scottish Government-owned procuring and ferry owning company Caledonian Maritime Assets Ltd (CMAL) made an "incredible" move to have the overseas owners fork out for the official approvals for any modifications to make it suitable for Scottish waters which were estimated to have cost no more than £100,000.

Campaigners are shocked to find that CMAL would this time be footing the bill for the modifications.

One told the Herald: "There has been a lot of spin on this new ferry but it is mind-boggling to see that there has been a clear u-turn on CMAL paying for modifications which cost us a much bigger ferry and it is a symptom of how under pressure the ferry system is that we take a vessel that is only half as good."

The Herald:

MV Coruisk. Source: ER 20 YouTube

Scots ex-pat Ken MacArthur, the commercial lead for Sealease, the Hong Kong based company selling the catamaran criticised the handling of the failed potential purchase by CMAL who he believed were never serious in completing a sale.

The experience ship broker had called on ministers in August to take a "long and meaningful look at process management and decision making in the Scottish public ferry sector for the sake of Scottish taxpayers and lifeline ferry users".

And he believed that transport minister Graeme Dey was "essentially rubber stamping" CMAL’s position on now such sales are conducted - a process one ferry users action group described as "incompetent".

Joe Reade, chairman of the Mull & Iona Ferry Committee said while the ferry was a welcome and would bring improvements to the winter timetable in 2022 it will not offer any relief from the congestion and travel difficulties this summer.

"The Utne will replace the Coruisk, but she is less capable in many ways – she takes fewer cars and fewer passengers, as well as being slower too. Five minutes will be added to every crossing. This could be overcome if the new vessel can operate longer hours – we will be pushing for exactly that.

"It is also unavoidable to draw comparison with the catamaran we had been trying o convince CMAL and government to buy. The catamaran is superior to the Utne in almost every respect.

"Many of the ‘obstacles’ that prevented the catamaran from being purchased (like onboard crew accommodation) also apply to the Utne – yet they have all been overcome. We’re delighted that the Utne has been purchased, but at the same time, sickened that a far better solution was passed over.

"This is unlikely to have come about had we not campaigned so long and loudly around the need for improvement, and on the Indonesian catamaran in particular.

"Whilst we did not get the new ferry we wanted, we at least got a new ferry. Comparison with what we could have had is difficult to avoid, and it has to be said that this is a much lesser vessel.

"The catamaran [similar to Pentland Ferries' MV Alfred] would have been a little more expensive, by any measure it would have been far better value for money. It is also hugely frustrating that issues that appeared to be intractable in the case of the catamaran (like on-board crew cabins) present no problems for the Utne.

"The fact that such a second-hand purchase is even necessary is a symptom of how delayed the arrival of new-build vessels is.

"The Utne has less than half the vehicle and passenger capacity of the catamaran, and is much slower at just 12 knots. She can only operate on more sheltered routes, so therefore cannot act as a relief to our neighbours on Coll, Tiree or Colonsay as the catamaran could have done.

"And at £9 million (after modification) she comes out at £265,000 per vehicle space, as opposed to £150,000 for the catamaran."

Scottish Conservatives shadow transport minister Graham Simpson MSP said: “This lays bare the SNP’s total lack of strategy for Scotland’s ferry network.

“Islanders who rely on these lifeline ferries have been let down time and time again. Now the SNP ministers have had to spend millions sourcing a new ferry from abroad. It has already been derided as being too slow, too small and restricted as to where it can operate.

“The SNP’s transport minister is trying to pull the wool over islanders eyes by claiming this is good news. In reality, this ferry is a sticking plaster and most residents will be continuing to ask why the SNP have failed to build two new ferries at Fergusons shipyard.

“That would have meant avoiding a situation where £9 million had to be splashed out on this stop-gap ferry.

“It is clear the SNP are still not listening to the concerns of islanders who are just desperate to know when they will be able to enjoy reliable services.”

It comes as the delivery of new lifeline island ferries MV Glen Sannox and Hull 802, which were due online in the first half of 2018, are over four years late, with costs doubling in total to over £200m. Glen Sannox, which like Hull 802 was being built to accommodate 1000 passengers and 127 cars or was due to support the Arran route.

Transport minister Graeme Dey said after announcing the new ferry: “I’m very pleased to announce that MV Utne has been purchased by CMAL [the owners of Scotland's ageing lifeline ferries Caledonian Maritime Assets Ltd] to join the ferry fleet serving the Clyde and Hebrides network.

“We have always said we would look to the second hand market for additional vessels to support our island communities, and this purchase is the result of this ongoing work."

It comes after a summer of cancellations and disruption across the CalMac ferry network due to breakdowns with the ageing ferry fleet.

Islanders from Arran to Islay have lodged complaints to ministers about disruption and cancellations to services as the fleet falters.

Mr Dey said: “The Scottish Government has committed £580 million to fund new ferries and port investments over the next five years. We continue to work with CMAL and CalMac to develop potential programmes that will deliver additional improvements to the network.”

While industry experts agree the working life of the ferries is 25 years, 14 of the 33-strong ferry fleet run is older than that, with eight, including Hebridean Isles, past their 30th birthday.

MV Utne will not go into immediate service.

Utne will transfer to CMAL around the end of this month, before undergoing modification work to allow it to enter service on the Oban – Craignure route.

The works are expected to be completed by early 2022, with CalMac staff then undergoing on board training and familiarisation.

Deployment details will be confirmed by CalMac in due course, subject to the vessel achieving Maritime and Coastguard Agency certification and the completion of crew training and sea trials.

Kevin Hobbs, chief executive of CMAL, said: “The search for a suitable second hand vessel has been long and challenging, and we’ve experienced a few false starts. But we are glad to bring this much-needed second hand tonnage to the fleet to provide the operator, CalMac, with some resilience."