By Bill Heaney
Scotland’s new SNP Minister for Transport, Graeme Dey’s first question which came from Western Isles MSP Alasdair Allan must have been as welcome as a cold baty bath in the sea off Oban this afternoon.,
Inevitably, it was about the government’s calamitous handling of the introduction of new Calmac ferries to supplement the service to the Isles.
Mr Dey said: “We recognise communities’ frustration at the current disruption and the impact that it is having.
“We are doing everything that we can to support CalMac to maximise available capacity across the network and to ensure the timely resolution of the issues.”
It is estimated that the SNP’s catastrophice decision to nationalise the Ferguson shipyard across the Clyde at Port Glasgow has already cost taxpayers in the region of £100 million with similar further eye-watering costs coming down the line.
Mr Dey told MSPs: “Since becoming Minister for Transport, I have prioritised the matter. I have already met CalMac representatives and local MSPs, including Dr Allan, and I will be meeting the independent CalMac community board on Friday to hear its views. I am open to constructive and viable suggestions for improving matters.
“We are actively exploring opportunities for chartering additional tonnage, including consideration of the suitability of MV Pentalina, to increase resilience across the network.
“We have also confirmed new investment of £580 million in ports and vessels to support and improve Scotland’s ferry services over the next five years.”
Dr Allan told him: “As the minister will appreciate, the entire economy of any island depends on its ferry. In recent weeks, I have been deluged by emails from families who are desperate to visit relatives on the mainland, and whose long-booked tickets have been cancelled; from businesses that can no longer get building materials to the islands or export shellfish; and from tourism businesses that are struggling to cope with the news that all bookings are suspended for a fortnight.”
He added: “MV Loch Seaforth [which is laid up at present] is CalMac’s largest major vessel, but she is also CalMac’s newest vessel. She should not be experiencing technical issues of such severity. Will there be an investigation into the causes of the faults?”
The MInister said: “I entirely recognise the intolerable nature of the situation for islanders, from individual and economic perspectives. I also realise that people want action rather than warm words, hence the work that is going on to improve matters in the short, medium and longer terms.
“With regard to the vessel that is at the centre of the matter, CalMac is, rightly, fully focused on resolving the issue and getting the MV Loch Seaforth back in service as quickly as possible.
“In parallel, specialist reports have been commissioned to examine the cause of the issue, and any recommendations will be fully considered. Once the reports are finalised and digested, I am happy to commit to updating members on the outcome of that exercise.”
Dr Allan replied: “Although the issues with the MV Loch Seaforth are unprecedented, breakdowns of major vessels on lifeline routes are not, unfortunately.
“It is now obvious for all to see that CalMac at present does not have enough vessels to run its services with the necessary resilience.
“What will the Government do in the immediate term to charter additional vessels and to ensure that the next overdue vessel order is placed with a shipyard soon?”
Graeme Dey said: “As I have said, we are actively looking at accessing additional tonnage in order to take care of the immediate future. Activity is also in hand on orders that are due to be placed, with a view to having one in particular—the one to which Dr Allan referred—well in train by the end of the financial year.”
Labour’s Katy Clark believed she knew what was wrong. She said: “The minister will be aware that part of the reason for the problem is the failure since 2011 to commission sufficient vessels.
“Is the minister willing to meet me, as a list MSP for West Scotland, to look at how we will address the long-term problem of failure to consult and listen to local communities that was highlighted in the recent Rural Economy and Connectivity Committee report, and at how we make sure that islanders on Arran and the trade unions that represent the CalMac workforce are involved in decision making?”
The Minister said: “In the short to medium term, we need a solution that does not involve robbing Peter to pay Paul and which will add to our assets in helping to begin properly to tackle the issue.
“We need an emergency plan, if you like, so that when such incidents arise, we can respond in a way that does not—again, as I said earlier—rob Peter to pay Paul.
“I have been in post for only a few days, it is very much a work in progress, but I give the assurance that it is all being actively looked at.”
NEWS JUST IN
The return of CalMac’s largest ferry to the Stornoway to Ullapool route has been delayed until Monday.
The MV Loch Seaforth suffered an engine failure last month, and further problems uncovered by engineers during repairs have delayed its return.
It had been expected to be back in service on Friday, in time for the bank holiday weekend.
CalMac said the ship’s engine was being rebuilt and it needed a 50 hour sea trial before returning to service.
Previous return to service dates in April and this month – including 17, 21 and 28 May – have been missed.
The issue has caused wider disruption on CalMac’s network, which is likely to continue over the upcoming holiday weekend.