The Scottish Government taskforce set-up to unravel the on-going fiasco surrounding the delayed arrival of a new car ferry in Stornoway should now focus their attention on the equally contentious issue of sub-standard services in Uist, according to Comhairle nan Eilean Siar.
While the work of the multi-agency group – under the chairmanship of Scottish transport minister Derek Mackay – was praised by councillors, they stated that it simply served to highlight what could be achieved if island ferry services were given the proper political priority. The £42 million MV ‘Loch Seaforth’ was finally able to carry out berthing trials in Stornoway this week – though it will be at least the end of the month before she is brought into public service.
At a meeting of the council’s transportation committee on Wednesday, members welcomed the long-awaited breakthrough, which followed a series of taskforce meetings and a re-assurance from CalMac Ferries that the existing vessel, the ‘Isle of Lewis’, will be retained as back-up over the summer months. However, Councillor Ronnie MacKinnon of South Uist said: “I’m glad you finally managed to get this sorted, but the taskforce should stay in place and look at Uist. It’s just as bad down there, if not worse. The Mallaig-Lochboisdale pilot is just a joke; a farce.”
Mr MacKinnon said the ferry route to Oban via Castlebay was equally as disruptive for the travelling public. Following a parliamentary question by Highlands and Islands list MSP Rhoda Grant, it was revealed that the Mallaig-Lochboisdale pilot – being run over the winter months to gauge demand – sailed for just 51 per cent of the time last year and in the first two months of this year has been cancelled 60 per cent of the time.
Transportation committee chair John MacKay said that Mr Mackay was due to visit Uist in the coming weeks when issues surrounding ferry services could be raised. Mr MacKinnon said: “If he does come, he’ll be flying in, cause he won’t be able to come by ferry.”
Councillors also raised concern that there was no island representation on the board of the operator CalMac Ferries or that of Caledonian Maritime Assets Limited, who own the vessels and the piers. Councillor ‘Cudaig” MacLeod described it as “serious misrepresentation”. “Why is there a farmer from Orkney on the board when CalMac don’t even sail to Orkney and we do not? This is a serious issue,” he said. The council also agreed to explore whether it would be possible that, in the drawing up of the new contract for Clyde and Hebrides Ferry Services, due in 2016, it could include a stipulation for the operator to relocate a number of the management jobs to the islands.