Calls have been made for a public inquiry into Scotland’s vital state ferry services as new figures show the cost of short-term chartering to support the aging fleet has risen more than forty-fold in ten years.
It comes as the rate of planned sailing cancellations nearly doubled during the Covid pandemic, with more than one in five stoppages last year being the result of technical issues with ferries.
Islanders this week complained of empty food shelves in shops as communities were hit by the breakdowns of the broken down fleet.
New figures seen by the Herald show it has cost the taxpayer nearly £500,000 in the first six months of 2020/21 alone – up from just £31,000 the year before and just £13,000 for the whole of 2010/11.
The vast majority of the new bill stems from the £472,3176.71 spent chartering an emergency ferry from a company owned by the Isle of Man Government for eight weeks last summer to help support the beleaguered fleet of Scotland and help keep the passenger vital. and freight services last year.
The charter for the MV Arrow did not include the 10 days it was out of service after even needing repair.
READ MORE: No food: Islanders worry about empty supermarket shelves as CalMac ferry services hit
The ferry deal was with the Isle of Man Steam Packet Company Limited, believed to be the world’s oldest operating passenger service, which celebrated its 190th anniversary in 2020.
Meanwhile, since the start of the current CalMac ferry franchise in 2016, the cost of repairs and maintenance has risen by 23% to £17,262,000 a year. Over the past five years the total cost of repairs was £83.6 million.
The revelation came following growing anger over a ‘waste’ of public money following Scotland’s ferry building fiasco and after state-owned shipyard company Ferguson Marine admitted there should be have even more delays and additional costs due to wiring issues. on one of the two vital ferries under construction.
State-controlled ferry operator CalMac said it was “disheartening” to hear of island communities suffering from the disruption of services in recent weeks and was doing all it could to lessen the impact.
And Comhairle nan Eilean Siar, the council covering the Western Isles, accused CalMac’s senior management of deciding to “hide” away from the islands and breaking a promise of dialogue with the local authority.
New data seen by the Herald reveals that in 2019, before the pandemic hit, around one in 29 planned crossings were cancelled. Of 163,878 departures, only 5,652 were cancelled.
But since then the cancellation rate has climbed to just over one in 16 as concerns have emerged over the viability of the aging ferry fleet.
In 2021 there were 155,199 scheduled sailings with 9351 cancellations and in 2020 there were 119,988 scheduled voyages with 7434 cancelled.
The August 2019 collapse of Ferguson Marine Engineering (FMEL) led by tycoon Jim McColl, which runs the last remaining shipyard in the lower Clyde, came amid soaring costs and delays in construction of two vital island ferries and led to its nationalization by the Scottish Government.
The cost of the two ships has doubled to around £200million despite their delivery being nearly five years behind schedule.
Highlands and Islands MSP Edward Mountain, the former chairman of the rural economy and connectivity committee who called the process of managing ferry purchases a “catastrophic failure”, said the figures put naked the failings of the ferry service and said there should be a full public inquiry.
“It has been an unfortunate year for our island communities, whose daily lives have been disrupted by an aging and highly prone to breakdown ferry fleet,” he said. “These new data are further evidence that the lack of new vessels is having a serious impact on ferry services. The SNP government has failed to renew the fleet and build the resilience of our ferry network.
“Many of these ferries are operating beyond their expected lifespan. Older boats require more maintenance, but there are also longer breakdowns and longer repair times.
“No one would expect the Prime Minister to drive to work in a 30 year old car, but the SNP Government expects islanders to rely on thirty year old ferries.
“Island communities are suffering the consequences of the SNP’s lack of anticipation. This is unacceptable and this is again why we need a full public inquiry to investigate this ferry fiasco.
Comhairle nan Eilean Siar said the islands were at “crisis point as widespread chaos” engulfed ferry services in the Inner and Outer Hebrides in recent days due to CalMac dry docking schedule overruns and of the breakdown of the MV Hebrides.
He called for urgent action from Calmac and the Scottish Government to ensure vital service is restored and the voice of the community is heard.
It comes as problems with the starboard main engine of the 21-year-old MV Hebrides mean the suspension of services to and from Uig on Skye and Lochmaddy in North Uist will last until Sunday. Engineers were making repairs to the ship which can carry 612 passengers and 90 cars on Thursday and CalMac said they were continuing to investigate “contingency plans”.
Four vital services were suspended at 3pm on Friday, partly due to weather conditions and partly due to the breakdown of the MV Hebrides, after three on Thursday and eight the day before.
A significant amount of emergent steel was also discovered on another elderly statesman in the fleet, the 25-year-old MV Clansman, in drydock, delaying its return by three weeks.
But Comhairle nan Eilean Siar said that even when the weather was not bad, ferry breakdowns and delays to new ferries made island communities vulnerable.
CalMac said unplanned ferry outages were partly to blame for the disruption of vital services in recent weeks, causing islanders to worry about empty shelves.
He said: “We are now well into the third week of extreme and unprecedented weather – one of the longest spells of severe weather and significant wave height for many years,” said the ferry operator.
“We are encountering technical faults on some vessels which require urgent repair. Additionally, some of our statutory annual reviews are being delayed, while engineers resolve unforeseen issues presented during detailed investigations.
“We will continue to work with local communities to ensure that their priorities for transporting goods and services are understood and supported. Our dedicated frontline staff speak to our regular customers every day to ensure essential goods and services are moved.
“We understand how much our customers and the communities we serve depend on ferry services. Keeping ferries running as they should is our top priority, and we appreciate your patience and understanding in what we know is going to be. a really difficult time.”
Transport Scotland said Scottish ministers and the board of state-controlled David MacBrayne Limited, which owns CalMac, were listening to islanders.
A Transport Scotland spokesperson said: “We recognize the fragility of some supply chains serving island communities and understand the anxiety that disruption to ferry services can cause.
“We are aware of the additional staffing pressures faced by operators due to the impact of the Covid pandemic on the availability of staff due to illness and self-isolation.
“Every effort is made to avoid cancellations and breakdowns, but it is impossible to completely eliminate the risk of this happening in technically complex vessels. In times of disruption, we always seek to work with operators to offer additional crossings where possible.
“We recognize that the ferry fleet is aging and as such we are providing new tonnage to support our communities by working with CMAL, CalMac, MSPs, community representatives and others to develop investment programs – at least £580m over the next five years – for large ships and small ships.