A call for action to address the reliability and capacity of ferry services to the Western Isles have been made by the Islands’ tourism industry organisation, with its chief warning that if action is not taken problems experienced in 2018 could be repeated next year.
Last week, in a move welcomed by the Comhairle, the Scottish Government’s own Rural Economy and Connectivity Committee called on the Government to address a lack of resilience in the fleet.
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They recommended procuring new vessels to improve service reliability, and to fully review the future of ferry services with a ‘realistic and achievable programme of funding, that would give confidence to island communities and other ferry users’.
The Committee, as part of its pre-budget scrutiny process, also recommended that the Scottish Government ‘reflect on whether it may be more appropriate to procure a larger number of smaller vessels as opposed to larger, more expensive vessels, to meet future needs on certain routes’.
Responding to the Committee, Rob McKinnon, CEO of Outer Hebrides Tourism said: “The Committee’s findings provide a helpful and concise summary of the ferry service the islands need in the future in terms of fleet, capacity and service frequency.
“However, many of its recommendations are longer term and will take time to take effect.
“The findings underline the need for all agencies with a role in delivering the islands’ ferry service to work together on creative solutions to improve reliability and increase capacity, while new vessels are being built if we are to avoid a repeat of the issues that have dogged the service throughout 2018.”
In a statement, the Comhairle confirmed that it had ‘contributed significantly’ to the Committee’s deliberations, and the Comhairle’s Chairman of Transportation and Infrastructure, Cllr Uisdean Robertson, said: “These recommendations are broadly to be welcomed and reinforce the case that the Comhairle has been making in our own discussions with Scottish Government, CMAL, and CalMac.
“I particularly welcome the Committee’s recognition that recent consideration of The Islands (Scotland) Act highlighted the value and contribution our island communities make and that the Committee is aware of the vital importance of ferries as a lifeline service and a linchpin for the ongoing sustainability of island communities and economies.”
Following a debate on the future of ferry services in the Scottish Parliament last week, Isles’ MSP, Dr Alasdair Allan, said: “Today’s debate was a useful opportunity to highlight the importance of ferry services to every aspect of island life and economy, and outline some of the issues that have caused concern to my constituents.
“Ferries in the Western Isles now have to cope with an astonishing 184,000 additional passengers a year, compared to a decade ago. Many routes now operate at capacity for half the year round.
“While this growth in traffic has undoubtedly been a good thing for the island economy, it’s appropriate for us to ask ourselves how the people of Paisley or Motherwell might react if they were told they had to book a fortnight in advance every time they wanted to get a bus to Glasgow.
“The Scottish Government has shown its commitment to funding ferry services far beyond what previous Governments have provided.
“But clearly we need to do something soon to address real problems with capacity. Now it is the time for all agencies to work together to reassure island communities about what shape this most vital of services will take in the future.”