When the Arran ferry does not sail, a wave of social and economic disruption washes across this beautiful Scottish island. Tourists rethink travel plans, shopkeepers suffer empty shelves and farmers fret over trailers full of restive livestock.

It is a scene that has become increasingly common across western Scotland’s islands in recent years, as an ageing ferry fleet struggles with increased demand and the rigours of the region’s rough waters.

Island representatives say weaknesses in the ferry network controlled by the devolved Scottish government have been brutally exacerbated by coronavirus disruption and a series of unusually fierce storms this winter.

“The situation is deteriorating,” said Bill Calderwood, secretary of the Isle of Arran Ferries Committee, which represents community and business interests, pointing at files showing hundreds of cancelled sailings already this year. “It’s unsustainable for the island, for our businesses and for our quality of life.”

Main ferry routes to Scotland’s western islands

Faltering ferry services have implications far beyond the islands. Failure to replenish the west coast fleet threatens to undermine the claim to competence of the pro-independence Scottish National party, which is suffering growing criticism of its record after nearly 15 years in power.

Mark Diffley, a public opinion consultant, said that, while the constitution dominated Scottish politics, widely reported problems with the ferry network could reinforce doubts across the nation about the SNP’s record.

“It’s part of a domestic agenda . . . where there are perceived weaknesses in the Scottish government’s delivery,” Diffley said. “Ferries is one of the key areas, along with education, which the opposition parties pick up to try and demonstrate that.”

A pair of badly needed ferries under construction on the Clyde are four years late and hugely over budget — the result of what a cross-party Scottish parliamentary committee in 2020 condemned as “catastrophic failure” of procurement management.

Official watchdog Audit Scotland said last week that the delays had exposed a “multitude of failings”, including “a lack of transparent decision-making, a lack of project oversight, and no clear understanding of what significant sums of public money have achieved”.

John McDonald, a beef farmer on Arran’s bucolic southern coast who sometimes struggles to get calves off the island, said ferry failings made him change his vote.

John McDonald: ‘It is incompetence at every level’ © Charlie Bibby/FT

“I was an SNP supporter . . . but I have completely burnt my boats with them. It is incompetence at every level,” McDonald said.

Some islanders take particular aim at Caledonian Maritime Assets (CMal), which owns west coast ferries and harbours on behalf of the Scottish government. Others aim their ire at CalMac, the government-owned company that holds the contract to operate the network, saying it is inefficient and inflexible.

At CalMac’s headquarters, managing director Robbie Drummond accepted services were at a “really difficult point”.

But Drummond said CalMac was facing increasingly extreme weather with a contract that required it to operate at “maximum stretch”, while passenger volumes had grown dramatically since the government introduced a cheaper vehicle fare structure between 2008 and 2015.

“If a sailing is cancelled, our options to move people on to another sailing is limited because those next sailings are all full,” he said. “When there’s an issue, there’s no spare vessel for us to go and provide some cover.”

Drummond said technical issues were inevitable despite big rises in maintenance spending, with the average age of CalMac’s ferries reaching 23 years — almost double that in 2006 — and more than a quarter of “major” vessels past their 30-year design life.

Kevin Hobbs, CMal’s chief executive, blamed Covid and storms for many delays and cancellations, but did not deny the problems created by 20 years of under-investment in vital infrastructure.

“A vessel made of steel being dipped in salt water is bound to fail at some stage,” he said. “I’m not saying for a minute that the government hasn’t spent money on ferries, all I am saying is that in CMal’s case . . . they haven’t spent enough money with regard to vessels and ports.”

The western ferry network’s problems have put into question the division of responsibility between its state-owned operator and asset holder, both of which follow policy set by government agency Transport Scotland.

“This triumvirate approach makes it really difficult, because everyone is just passing the buck to someone else,” said Sheila Gilmore, chief executive of VisitArran, which supports tourism development on the island.

Sheila Gilmore: ‘We’ve worked really hard on the island to be a year-round destination — but that depends on people getting here’ © Charlie Bibby/FT

Gilmore worried that ferry problems risked undermining the attraction of Arran, long celebrated as “Scotland in Miniature” for its mix of grand Highland glens and lush Lowland hills.

“We’ve worked really hard on the island to be a year-round destination — but that depends on people getting here,” she said.

CalMac agrees that separation of operator and ferry assets undermines accountability. Drummond said bringing them together as part of a longer-term contract would promote strategic development and a more standardised fleet.

Robbie Drummond, CalMac managing director: ‘We are working incredibly hard to keep the system resilient, but the next two years are going to be immensely challenging’ © Charlie Bibby/FT

But Hobbs at CMal insisted it was already pushing standardisation and that being a separate asset owner encouraged strategic thinking. “In an integrated shipping company, everybody gets sucked into the problem of the day,” he said.

A report for the government on sector reform by professional services firm EY has yet to be published. And ministers are saying little about their plans beyond ruling out further privatisation or any dismantling of the CalMac network.

Transport Scotland said the government had committed £580mn over the five years to 2026 to “address delays in investment in ferry infrastructure”.

“Ministers recognise that a lack of confidence in ferry services can impact upon people’s decision on whether to live and work on the islands, and impacts upon the sustainability of the island communities themselves,” the agency said.

Hobbs at CMal said the government’s £580mn was just a “good start”. To replace 23 of the fleet’s 37 vessels and “deal with” ports near the end of their working life would cost around £1.4bn over 10 years, he said.

A priority for easing network strains is the delivery of the two ferries being built at Ferguson Marine on the Clyde, the first of which will serve Arran.

Ferguson Marine collapsed in 2019 and was nationalised following a bitter dispute between CMal and leading Scottish businessman Jim McColl over the contract for the ferries, originally supposed to be delivered in 2018.

Work is carried out at Ferguson Marine on the Glen Sannox ferry, which is running four years behind schedule © Charlie Bibby/FT

David Tydeman, the yard’s new chief executive, told the Scottish parliament last week they would now be delivered in 2023.

But in an interview before that update, Tydeman dismissed concerns the ferries’ long and troubled build would compromise their quality.

Indeed, Tydeman said the second vessel would be a demonstration of the yard’s capability that could help it win future orders.

“A lot of the future depends on restoring confidence that we can build ships normally,” he said, adding he hoped to soon re-establish Ferguson Marine as one of five companies central to UK shipbuilding strategy.

“I don’t see why it shouldn’t be. It’s within our grasp to make it a success,” Tydeman said.

But with other vital new ferries not expected until 2024 and demand likely to hit new records, CalMac’s Drummond said there would be no imminent end to islanders’ transport woes.

“We are working incredibly hard to keep the system resilient, but the next two years are going to be immensely challenging,” he said.



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