Labour in the Western Isles has called for immediate action to charter a freight vessel for the Stornoway-Ullapool route in order to ease pressure on the Loch Seaforth and the wider CalMac network.
Prospective Parliamentary candidate, Alison MacCorquodale, has pointed to reports in the maritime media that cargo vessel, Clipper Ranger, which was formerly deployed on the Stornoway-Ullapool route, is “resting” at the Cammell Laird yard on Merseyside.
Meanwhile, her largeFr sister vessel, Clipper Pennant, is going on charter to carry freight between the Spanish mainland and the Canary Islands. The same report states that it is likely Clipper Ranger “will join her three sister vessels in going out on charter to another operator”.
It is one of these sister vessels, Clipper Arrow, which has been leased by the Scottish Government to provide extra capacity on Shetland services, provoking protests from the Western Isles over the disparity of treatment between the needs of the two island groups.
Ms MacCorquodale said: “It is now beyond dispute that there are freight vessels available in the market, contrary to the assertions by SNP Ministers. There are very serious concerns about what the winter holds, particularly with the Loch Seaforth’s annual visit to dry dock coming up”.
Her demand for urgent action was strongly backed by Stornoway haulier, David Wood, who has written to the local MSP, Alasdair Allan, warning of “real concern over the inability of CalMac to provide a reliable alternative to the Loch Seaforth”.
Mr Wood wrote: “We would expect no less than the service gained by (Shetland MSP) Tavish Scott for the Northern Isles last week with the deployment of Clipper Arrow to alleviate pressure on freight services”
Welcoming Mr Wood’s intervention, Ms MacCorquodale said: “It is quite clear that the voice of the Western Isles has not been getting through to Edinburgh and we now need to highlight the problems and concerns much more effectively in order to safeguard our islands’ economy from further damage”.
Later, Comhairle nan Eilean Siar’s Chairman of Transportation, Councillor Uisdean Robertson, welcomed the debate around how ferry services can be improved to the Western Isles saying: “It is good to see the discussion on ferry services moving beyond the delayed delivery of the two new ferries to focus on what the correct vessel replacement decisions are.
"The Comhairle in our evidence to the Parliament’s committee have underlined our firm belief that our islands are suffering from a long period of underinvestment in ferry services that has been followed by some very poor investment choices when Government has made significant funds available.
"Had communities been listened to we could have had two new ferries built to serve Stornoway and one new ferry built to provide a dedicated ferry to both Lochmaddy and Tarbert. This would have delivered significant new capacity through increased frequency that would have delivered a step change in the ferry service to the Western Isles. Instead more money has been spent on a single ferry and massive infrastructure investment across the three routes”
On the ongoing delay in delivering NV802 to serve the two crossings on the Triangle, Councillor Robertson added: “It is disappointing to note the comments from Jim McColl of Ferguson Marine focus almost solely on a contractual dispute with CMAL.
"Instead of arguments over contracts, what the Comhairle want to hear is what action the yard is taking to accelerate build of NV802 which is now scheduled to be as late as the original forecast build time.
"This is not good enough where lifeline ferry services are concerned. If there does prove to be a breach of contract on delivering this vessel, the liable party should be required to fund an alternative ferry that could be leased to CalMac to allow a dedicated ferry to operate on each of the Triangle services from Summer 2019.”