Less than two weeks into the 2017 summer season and the simmering discontent about Skye's Mallaig-Armadale ferry service has once again erupted.
Sleat Transport Forum have hit out after no less than 36 cancellations on the route since March 31 and there are now increasing concerns, despite assurances from ferry operators, Calmac and the Scottish Government, that a similar poor level of service experienced last year will plague the crossing again in 2017.
A spokesman for the Forum said: ‘this is due entirely to the deployment of unsuitable vessels on the route which are affected by tides and unable to operate in moderate winds. These problems were foreseen by the forum and the communities on both sides of the Sound of Sleat but all attempts to secure a reliable and regular service have fallen on deaf ears at both the Scottish Government and CalMac.
"The problem could be resolved at a stroke by the return of ’MV Coruisk’, the vessel purpose built for the route which is at present deployed as a second ship on the Oban-Craignure service. There are other options available to meet the needs of Oban-Craignure route if the will existed to look at these."
Including weather cancellations there have now been 36 service cancellations on the Mallaig-Armadale route since the season commenced on 31st March. This figure is almost now approaching 10% of the 395 service cancellations during the entire 2016 season using three vessels and almost 50% of the total service cancellations of 76 during the summer of 2015 when the service was operated by a single vessel ‘MV Coruisk’.
Roddy Murray, Chair of the Forum continued ‘The continuing daily disruption will have a very detrimental impact on local economies leading to the loss of employment and a downturn in business.
"Despite all assurances from CalMac and Transport Scotland that last year’s unacceptable service would not be repeated, the situation has not improved and Sleat Transport Forum appeals once again to the Minister for Transport and Islands, Humza Yousaf MSP, and his officials, to take immediate steps to retrieve the situation and to enable an effective and reliable service to be provided.’
The Forum say that following the ‘unacceptable level of service’ on the Mallaig-Armadale route in 2016 the Operator, CalMac Ferries Ltd, has deployed two vessels on the route this year, MV Loch Fyne and MV Lord of the Isles.
The Loch Fyne (36 cars) was built in 1991 for deployment on the Kyle-Kyleakin route prior to the opening of the Skye Bridge, a five-minute crossing in sheltered waters. Prior to its service on the Mallaig route the vessel has operated the short crossing from Lochaline to Fishnish. The vessel was designed to operate from concrete slipways to enable it to deploy in any tidal conditions, but both Mallaig and Armadale have ‘linkspans’, hydraulic ramps with less flexibility in low tides. The MV Lord of the Isles, a larger vessel (49 cars), operates up to 3 services per day from Mallaig to Armadale, whilst on its turnaround from its daily service from Lochboisdale. Should the service from South Uist be cancelled or diverted, often because of adverse weather, significant car capacity is lost on the Mallaig-Armadale rotations.
Due to the inability of the Loch Fyne to operate from a linkspan in low tides CalMac Ferries have introduced a tidal timetable for the summer season from 31st March to 22nd October where on 78 out of 206 sailing days there are 241 ‘planned’ cancellations of crossings. As a result on some days there are no sailings from Mallaig to Armadale for five hours and from Armadale to Mallaig for six hour, some at the height of the holiday season.
With adverse weather expected on this open-water route throughout the summer further service cancellations are inevitable, leading to uncertainty for passengers through disruption and particularly for coach operators whose itineraries are planned far in advance and who are dependent on a reliable ferry service for their customers.