A ferry users group on Mull has blamed a union for cynically ruining the chance to solve ferry woes on the west coast.
CalMac had hoped to charter The Pentalina, owned by private Orkney operator Pentland Ferries, to take up the strain on the network.
The large catamaran was in Oban carrying out sea trials for the Mull route recently.
And only last week CalMac was in talks with Mull and Iona Ferry Committee to discuss timetable options.
But this week, Pentland Ferries pulled out of discussions citing “likely” issues with the lifespan of the contract that would “threaten the commercial viability”.
It followed claims by the National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers that the Pentalina was unsafe.
Mull and Iona Ferry Committee said RMT raised safety concerns about The Pentalina as it feared the private operator could threaten public jobs.
‘Misguided and cynical effort’
Joe Reade, chairman of the committee, says the Oban to Craignure route is the “most congested” on the CalMac network.
He accused the union of protecting their own interests.
Mr Reade said: “The Pentalina is of similar capacity to many of CalMac’s major vessels, but requires around half the crew.
“If repeated around the network, this efficiency could transform our ferry services. We could operate more ferries, more frequently – but with the same total numbers of crew.
“The RMT do not seem to recognise the improvement to island life this could bring, and have instead put all their efforts into a misguided and cynical effort to protect their own interests.”
He continued: “The ferry system is in crisis. This was an opportunity to do something about that and RMT have scuppered it.
“It appears the supposed safety fears RMT have raised in a very public and scandalising manner have led Pentland Ferries to decide it’s more trouble than it is worth.
“Last week we had a meeting with CalMac to discuss what timetable The Pentalina could operate. It was exciting. We have been arguing for a better timetable for years.
“The first sailing of the day would have been from Craignure, and the last sailing from Oban. This would have given us up to four more hours on the mainland on weekdays.
‘Commuting reliably to a job in Oban would have become a real possibility’
“It would have opened up travel choices in the winter, making connections easier and increasing the likelihood of being able to complete a journey within one day. Commuting reliably to a job in Oban would have become a real possibility.
“We would also have had a highly manoeuvrable and wind-resilient vessel, with the prospect of a more reliable service in winter than our increasingly fragile MV Isle of Mull.”
He claimed RMT were “cynical” for raising concerns about significant structural alterations which have been made to the Pentalina.
Pentalina is not an unsafe ferry.”
Mr Reade said these amounted to the removal of a fridge from the onboard servery, which had an unintended impact on the fire separation between the galley and the passenger lounge.
He said it could be returned to its original form with “a couple of hours joinery work.”
He added: “Pentalina is not an unsafe ferry. RMT have turned it into a hysterical safety issue when it is totally not.”
How have the RMT responded?
RMT general secretary Mick Lynch said Pentland Ferries owner Andrew Banks had “marched off in a strategic huff” to turn passengers against CalMac workers.
He said: “It was his decision to take an angle grinder to the structure of the Pentalina in 2015, exposing crew and Orkney residents to unnecessary safety risks.
“Why isn’t he offering the brand spanking new catamaran, Alfred, to help out communities in Mull and elsewhere on the lifeline network?
“Because this is all about Mr Banks getting the taxpayer and CalMac’s hard working staff to bail out his uncompetitive business after Covid.
“And RMT will not let that happen.”
Pentland Ferries did not respond to requests for comment.