Comhairle nan Eilean Siar today (Wednesday February 24) joins a range of community representatives in the islands in formally rejecting proposals from Scottish Government agency Transport Scotland and CalMac ferries to further reduce the limited winter timetable currently in place and delay a summer timetable indefinitely.
Following protests from transport union leaders, Transport Scotland sought a reduction in service to "reduce unnecessary interactions between customers, vessel crews and port staff and reduce the risk of COVID community transmission. This is being considered now following other transport operators being asked to reduce services."
In a strongly worded statement, CnES said that in many island communities injury is being added to insult when the reality is that ferry service reliability is so poor that interaction between passengers and crews is already much reduced as ferry services are so disrupted by weather and technical failures across the ageing fleet – many locations haven't seen a ferry of any sort for days, if not weeks.
The Comhairle have taken the following formal position on the proposal from Scottish Ministers to further reduce Western Isles ferry services:
- There requires to be further formal engagement with, at a minimum, the Comhairle’s political leadership prior to any changes being considered by Transport Scotland;
- Further information is needed as to the proposed length of the reduction period and when it would commence;
- The consultation period is extremely short, for reasons which are not apparent . It cannot reasonably be said that there is an urgent need to reduce services on account of COVID issues when Scotland has been in Levels 3 or 4 since December 2020;
- With the imminent return to the summer timetable, a reduction in COVID cases, the progress of the vaccination programme and the possible return of the Western Isles to Level 3 in early course, this seems to be a strange time to be discussing the reduction of services;
- A reduced frequency will mean more traffic on individual sailing increasing the proximity of customers one to each other and to crew members;
- The operator and Transport Scotland must confirm that a full summer timetable can be implemented with adequate crew in place overnight when travel restrictions ease
These comments are made in the context of considerable and damaging service failures , particularly in Uist and Barra, which are only partly attributable to weather. The Comhairle considers that, rather than reducing services, Transport Scotland should instruct CalMac to find greater flexibility within its fleet, assisting the company whenever possible through the purchase or leasing of other vessels, some of which are available elsewhere in Scotland.
Chair of Transportation Councillor Uisdean Robertson said, “This request to further reduce ferry services will have a calamitous impact on our seafood industry which already has enough to contend with because of Brexit and creates wholly avoidable uncertainty for our tourism industry which has already effectively endured 3 winters in business terms and needs some form of summer season in 2021 if we are to see any recovery from the pandemic.
"I am calling on the Islands Minister to step in and abort this unnecessary and ill thought plan and to recognise that the unreliability of the Calmac fleet cannot be swept under the carpet any longer.
"What is needed is decisive action to provide new tonnage to ease the strain on the fleet. I wrote to Mr Wheelhouse last week setting out actions that can be taken to relieve pressure on the fleet in the short to medium term including the opportunity of a new build catamaran for Mull and chartering Pentalina and a freight ferry for Stornoway.
"Responsibility for the debacle of our ferry fleet sits with Scottish Ministers and I am calling on them to show leadership on this issue.”