The Minister for Energy, Connectivity and the Islands got stuck in the Hebrides last night after attending a ferry summit.
Many of the attendees at the Lionacleit event – including Paul Wheelhouse – were stranded when their Glasgow-bound flight was cancelled in stormy weather.
They had heard during the day how significant negative impacts of an inadequate ferry service is “slowly killing” communities in Uist and Benbecula a ferry summit heard yesterday.
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On a day a gale forced widespread cancellation on island sea routes, key people involved in ferry services – including ferry minister Paul Wheelhouse and Cal Mac boss Robbie Drummond – attended the forum in Lionacleit organised by MSP Alasdair Allan after a season of chaos badly hit the Uist economy.
The Lochboisdale – Mallaig service was suspended for lengthy periods in the first half of the year when Cal Mac reassigned the MV Lord of the Isles to cover Inner Hebrides following a vessel breakdown elsewhere in the fleet.
In addition, without warning, Cal Mac took away the Skye triangle regular ship, MV Hebrides, to cover the Tiree timetable at the busy Easter period.
Replacement vessel, Hebridean Isles, could not cope with demand. Space on the service to Harris and Uist was unavailable to book for weeks.
Many travellers cancelled their trips to the islands with the result of significant loss of bookings to hotels and B&Bs while lorries delivering food and supplies were stranded.
Kevin Hobbs said: “We are painfully aware people were let down badly.”
The ship building delays caused Cal Mac a “huge problem,” leaving the overstretched ferry network without the “flexibility” provided by additional ships.
If the ships were delivered on time, this year’s chaos could have been avoided, he said.
Calls for a dedicated ferry for the Skye – Lochmaddy run were emphasised.
Presently North Uist shares the MV Hebrides with Harris.
Malcolm Turner, development manager with Highlands and Islands Enterprise, warned the consequence of a deficient service is “slowly killing these islands” and “leading to depopulation.”
He stressed: “Without growing the ferry service, nothing is going to change.”
Islands minister Paul Wheelhouse, who also has a portfolio responsibility for ferries, acknowledged there are concerns.
He said: “I am not ducking the challenges – I want to try and understand the situation.“
CalMac’s managing director Robbie Drummond said: “It was a positive meeting and we look forward to continuing to work with all parties to deliver a ferry service which meets community needs and promotes sustainable economic growth in the islands we support.”