‘Shambles’: CalMac finalize delayed winter timetable for ferry services but islanders still cannot make bookings

CALMAC’s winter timetables have been finalised, five months late, but users will not be able to start booking services for at least another 11 days.

And state-owned ferry operator has admitted they are still to reach agreement over services to and from Mull and Iona which have been at the center of a political row.

The timetables run from October 24 to March 30.

The ferry operator says that other services won’t be open for reservation until October 13.

The timetables are normally published in April, but the transport minister Jenny Gilruth has said there had been a hold up because of arrangements over the closure of Uig harbor on Skye to allow for upgrades this winter – which sparked a row over island services disruption.

Without the timetables, ferry users have not been able to book ferry trips to islands off the west coast beyond October 23, when the winter timetable is due to come into effect.

Earlier this month it was announced that instead of 24-week closure this autumn, work to upgrade the pier will be cut to 14 weeks and split over two periods, from January 16 to March 13, next year and October 30 to December 11.

Ms Gilruth has admitted that it has been a “challenging time” after it emerged that she had intervened over concerns over ‘cuts’ to winter timetables that have been put to users groups in draft form.

CalMac has been asked to rethink timetables for services to Mull and Iona, after the local ferry committee said it received “strong” feedback from members of the public to the “seriously flawed” draft timetables, which it saw as a cut to services.

It means that sometimes the busy west coast island route goes from a two vessel service to one relying only on the recently-purchased MV Loch Frisa, which the committee said was “completely inadequate both in terms of capacity and connectivity”.

CalMac say that the publication of timetables is coming in two phases.

The first involves publishing timetables on Monday for the Ardossan to Brodick (Arran), Ullapool to Stornoway (Lewis), Berneray to Leverburgh (Harris), Barra to Eriskay, Oban to Lismore, Kennacraig to Islay and Oban to Colonsay routes. But the services will not be available to book until October 4.

The second involves publishing timetables on Wednesday for the Uig to Tarbert and Lochmaddy, Oban to Castlebay (Barra), Oban to Coll and Tiree, Mallaig to the Small Isles, Mallaig to Lochboisdale (South Uist) and Mallaig to Armadale (Skye). Those services will not be available to book until October 13.

Meanwhile CalMac admit that consultation is ongoing with the Mull and Iona Ferry Committee so dates for Oban to Craignure and Fionnphort to Iona are still to be confirmed.

One island ferry user group official said: “There is a phrase ‘better late than never’ but it is not the case here, as lateness costs all islands business and disrupts life for those of us who are reliant on the ferry services.

“Even with this announcement, the general public will not be able to book any services after October 24 for in some cases weeks. I understand the difficulties that there are in managing our underinvested services, but really something has got to give. It really is a total shambles.”

Robbie Drummond, managing director of CalMac, said: “We appreciate that the uncertainty around the winter overhaul and timetable plans will have been unsettling for our island communities and we are sorry for any anxiety this may have caused.

“We have been working hard to publish the timetables as early as possible, but the revised plan for the closure of Uig, which is resulting in two different timetables and a high volume of service changes to accommodate this year’s overhaul plan, brought an unprecedented level or complexity. This involves entering over 58,000 sailings and is on top of the usual interdependencies between routes and connecting services, and tidal restrictions in some areas.

“We want to assure customers we are doing all we can to deliver the timetables as quickly as possible and want to thank customers and communities for their patience as they bear with us through this period.”

Concerns from the Mull and Iona ferry committee partly surrounds MV Loch Frisa, a second hand ferry brought in to improve services, and which for seven weeks will operate on her own, while there will be two and a half weeks when MV Isle of Mull will be the only vessel available.

Additionally, the committee also took issue with a lack of enough notice, calling it “completely unacceptable”. They said that the draft timetables were presented seven weeks before they were due to be introduced.

Loch Frisa, which will provide one leg of the single-vessel schedule, was described as “incapable” of providing the service required due to its size and speed.

In a letter to CalMac, MIFC’s chair Joe Reade said that the ferry’s lack of capacity and speed would “hugely compromise” transport connections with the Isle of Iona, leaving day trips to Oban for its residents “all but useless”.

He said that MV Loch Frisa, which was bought second hand from Norled, the Norwegian shipping company for £9m as a replacement for the 18-year-old MV Coruisk, is “completely unsuited” to the route and was a “ridiculous purchase” saying she is “too small, too slow and does not provide enough capacity while public transport connections have been decimated.

The seven-year-old Loch Frisa carries 195 passengers and 34 cars. That was seen as downgrade on MV Coruisk which it replaces – which can carry 30% more passengers, 17% more cars and at a 14 knot top speed was four knots faster.

It is also more than half the size of an Indonesia-built vessel campaigners wanted but could not get after a deal fell through over a row between over who was paying for the modifications.

The ferry committee says that Loch Frisa has half the capacity of Mull’s usual main ferry and is much slower, meaning that public transport connections are lost.lly breakfast on the ferry to school, now have no opportunity to eat until lunchtime.

Mr Drummond added: “We have been in ongoing discussions with the MIFC for the last few days regarding the single vessel MV Loch Frisa timetable, and recognize there are very real concerns regarding the proposal initially put forward. We have identified several mitigations to address these concerns and have been working closely with the community to optimize these as much as possible to better meet island needs. Although these discussions are yet to be concluded, we are confident that we are reaching a reasonable position that mitigates any potential impacts as far as possible.

“The challenges we’ve experienced with timetables this year reflects the realities of the network. Our fleet is incredibly stretched – more so than ever before – and we are simply unable to provide a two-vessel service on Oban-Craignure for the full winter season, without seriously impacting on another route. We are pleased that with the introduction of MV Loch Frisa we are able to offer an improved service for the majority of the year. This combined with improvements to the single vessel timetable, achieved through effective community engagement, means the timetables are better able to meet island needs.”

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