The words 'ferry fiasco' and 'ageing fleet' are terms that are now commonly used with little opposition from those who are in control of the lifeline network.

The Scottish Government agency Transport Scotland, which had previously accentuated the positives, has been regularly referring to ferry operator CalMac's "ageing fleet" for nearly two years.

The terms were far more controversial within the ranks of the Scottish Government agency Transport Scotland and taxpayer-controlled ferry owner and procurer Caledonian Maritime Assets Limited four to five years ago when the first rumblings of major concerns about the state of Scotland's ferry fleet started to ring alarm bells.

At the time, among the biggest issues over transport related to disruption on ScotRail, then run by state-controlled Dutch firm Abellio – with a wave of day-to-day disruption to services caused partly by staff not being sufficiently trained to run new trains in time for a winter timetable launch.

The Herald carried regular blow-by-blow updates on service failures for months – as the concerns snowballed from the customer to the political arena, a situation that is mirrored with Scotland's ferry failings.

The ScotRail issues led to a plan to address falling performance levels with Abellio which eventually lost the franchise early, while the Scottish Government subsequently took control as the Operator of Last Resort from April last year.

The true state of our ferry services which are an essential part of Scotland's transport network and crucial for both island and mainland communities, had for years, to a large degree, been under the radar.

But as the chaotic state of cancellations and delays became more and more visible from mid-2018, The Herald has been digging deep into the machinations of why it has happened. It has gone from being a huge talking point in transport to the hottest of hot political potatoes for the Scottish Government which has been accused by critics of mismanagement of the vital lifeline services, with a failure to properly invest in the network.

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Today The Herald launches the first of a regular series of newsletters on the state of transport in Scotland, with a special focus on ferries to try and give some further insight into how the nation is getting people moving.

The ferry routes to Scotland's remote and island communities provide crucial lifeline links to thousands of residents to provide access to services, from jobs to education and leisure, and help promote a range of opportunities from business growth to social inclusion.

They play a vital role in providing access for the many tourists who visit the communities and are a crucial contributor to the local economies.

But the issues with island life, including the problems with the ferries, have led to fears of a new wave of depopulation.

The latest Scottish population surveys show that just over 316,000 are classed as living in remote rural areas – which make up 70% of the country's land mass. There were over 90 inhabited islands in Scotland at the time of the 2011 Census. Their total population was 103,700.

Four years ago the Scottish Government produced a National Islands plan recognising population decline is a real threat to the sustainability of many of Scotland's island communities.

Over the previous 10 years, almost twice as many islands had lost populations as had gained.

Running parallel to ageing vessel breakdowns is the questions about the Scottish Government's control as owners of everything to do with ferries – from their building, operation and ownership to their financing and creation.


The Herald revealed three years ago the Scottish Government had produced a secret path to the state takeover of Ferguson Marine two years before its financial collapse in August 2019. It came after major delays to the delivery of two lifeline ferries which have still not been finally resolved. Design changes were at the centre of the fiasco with the Jim McColl-led Ferguson Marine board and CMAL blaming each other for the issues. It led to its nationalisation.

The two new lifeline vessels Glen Sannox and the so far unnamed Hull 802 were due online in the first half of 2018 when Ferguson Marine was under the control of Mr McColl, with one initially to serve Arran and the other to serve the Skye triangle routes to North Uist and Harris, but they are over five years late. The last estimates suggested the costs of delivery could quadruple from the original £97m cost.

It was in mid-2018 that serious rumblings over the state of Scotland's ferries began to really take shape following a "significant decline" over 12 months. In 11 years, the equivalent of around 128 sailings a week have been delayed or cancelled.

At that point the two long-awaited lifeline ferries had been delayed yet again, and were expected to be ready in the summer of 2019 and spring, 2020.

Two years ago, on May 16, 2021, we revealed that more than half of Scotland's lifeline ferry network was operating outwith its working life expectancy of 25 years.

Transport Scotland began referring to the ferry fleet as ageing in response to inquiries about continuing concerns over disruption to services two months later.

Previously the agency had responded to concerns by saying that the Scottish Government had invested over £2bn in ferry services and ferry infrastructure since 2017 – despite real terms "fund reductions by UK government".

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