The future of ferry services between Lewis, Harris and the mainland is to be mapped out next week (Monday 20th and Tuesday 21st May) as a Transport Scotland research contract moves into its next phase.

Public drop-in sessions at the Bridge Community Centre in Stornoway on Monday and at Tarbert Community Centre on Tuesday will give people a chance to find out what conclusions are emerging from a study which has been under way since last year, and to contribute further opinions.

Transport Scotland has commissioned Peter Brett Associates (PBA), now part of Stantec, to carry out a transport appraisal considering the long-term options for the ferry routes to, from and within the Outer Hebrides.

Earlier responses to consultation on the Stornoway-Ullapool route show that travellers are most concerned about capacity – especially during peak holiday times – breaks in service while ferries go for annual maintenance, and inadequate wi-fi aboard the Loch Seaforth, among other issues.

PBA found that aspects of the Stornoway-Ullapool route presented only relatively minor problems, but the issue of capacity rated as a major problem. In addition, dependence on MV Loch Seaforth to operate both freight and passenger sailings caused significant concern.

The primary problem facing the Stornoway Ullapool route is what PBA calls ‘Emerging summer capacity challenges, particularly on summer Saturdays’. Research on available space on the MV Loch Seaforth during the year 2017 showed hotspots of capacity booking at Easter, in the first week of the summer holidays and during HebCelt week, when there was 0% availability for vehicles on the Saturday sailings.

Problems using wi-fi, summer service frequency and inability to make day-trips to the mainland were among the top causes of dissatisfaction for those using the Tarbert Uig route.

For both Stornoway and Tarbert, integrated public transport links serving both ends of the ferry route are contributing to problems for passengers. In Harris, passengers cited the lack of long-distance services connecting with early and late sailings, meaning an overnight stay in Skye can often be necessary, while in Stornoway respondents said there was limited public transport integration on both sides of the crossing, together with issues in booking the ‘on demand’ Citylink coach at Ullapool.

The consultants propose solutions to be considered over the medium to long-term future, including a seasonal or year-round freight ferry running alongside MV Loch Seaforth and the opening of some overnight freight sailings for use as passenger sailings.

On the Tarbert Uig route, the operation of a peak summer timetable on a year-round basis or the operation of a single ferry dedicated to the Tarbert Uig route alone are to be considered as options.

Next week’s meetings will take the form of public drop-in sessions where members of the public can come along, find out about the emerging study outcomes and, if they wish, have an informal discussion with the team at any point between 4pm and 7.30pm, at the Bridge Centre on Monday 20th and Tarbert Community Centre on Tuesday 21st May.