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‘Bitterly disappointing’ blow to CalMac as ferry firm withdraws from vessel chartering talks

The MV Pentalina in Orkney. Picture from Shutterstock

Ferry operator Caledonian MacBrayne have said they are “surprised and disappointed” by the unexpected withdrawal of another company from talks over chartering a vessel for two west coast routes.

CalMac had been attempting to reach a deal with Pentland Ferries which would allow them to use the ship MV Pentalina on services to Arran and Mull, and were even preparing to discuss timetables with local communities.

The agreement would also have meant the strained CalMac network would gain some additional resilience.

However, the Orkney-based firm announced today they would be pulling out of the discussions due to “likely” issues with the lifespan of the contract that would “threaten the commercial viability”.

Andrew Banks, the managing director of Pentland Ferries, said: “Unfortunately these issues, which fundamentally stem from the very different status of a public-funded service compared to a small private operator such as ourselves, have given us no alternative but to withdraw from the discussions.”

Kirkwall, where the MV Pentalina is currently berthed.

He added: “I would like to stress that the talks with CalMac Ferries were positive and constructive and the vessel herself is safe and very suitable for service on the west coast.

“However, our priority has to be to the continued viability of Pentland Ferries, and to our employees and passengers.

“We cannot commit to a scenario whereby external factors have the potential to cause severe risk and reputational damage to the business that we have worked so hard to build, and unfortunately we have therefore let CalMac know of our decision.”

The deal would have meant Pentland Ferries operated the ferry on behalf of CalMac, providing the vessel and the crew to deliver the timetable while CalMac provided crew to deliver the onboard retail offering.

However, the National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers (RMT) welcomed the news about Pentand Ferries’ withdraw after raising safety concerns over one of the company’s vessels – the Pentalina.

The union’s general secretary Myke Lynch said: “We of course recognise the difficulties caused to people and businesses by the ongoing failure of the Scottish Government’s vessel procurement programme.

“But bringing an unsafe vessel onto Clyde and Hebrides ferry services is in no one’s interest.

“We strongly believe that a cavalier approach to safety and seafarers’ rights, hallmarks of Pentland Ferries, have no place on Scotland’s lifeline ferry services.”

‘Eleventh hour’ walkout

Concerns have now been raised over the potential impact of the collapse of talks on the other CalMac routes, including the problem-hit route to the Western Isles.

Western Isles MSP Alasdair Allan said: “I am bitterly disappointed that Pentland Ferries seem to have walked away at the eleventh hour.

“As recently as the end of last week, CalMac had deployment plans drawn up for the MV Pentalina and were about to engage with communities over timetabling.

“While the vessel would likely not have been deployed to the Western Isles, she would have added much-needed resilience to the network.

“CalMac needs additional vessels: that is plain for all to see. The Scottish Government now needs to urgently pursue alternative charter options.”

CalMac were planning to use the ferry on their route to Arran.

Robbie Drummond, managing director of CalMac, said: “We are surprised and disappointed by this unexpected news.

“However, this was entirely a decision for Pentland Ferries in relation to the use of its vessel.

“We will continue to work closely with Transport Scotland and Pentland Ferries and should they revisit that decision and make the vessel available to us at a future date, we would consider this option again.”

He added: “I know this news will also come as a great disappointment to our communities particularly those we had been discussing the detailed options with.

“I thank them for their patience and support as we continue to search for suitable alternatives available for charter to enhance capacity and resilience within our network.”