Arran’s ferry service is in crisis and islanders are in despair. what’s to be done?

I’m chatting to someone who lives on Arran and ask him what effect the ferries are having on his life. Let me show you, he says. He sends me a picture he took on his phone the other day: Friday November 25 at the Brodick Co-op. He’d popped in to get some veg for dinner. Fat chance. Nothing there. Empty shelves. You’d get more vegetables in the Ukraine than Brodick, he says.

And it’s not an isolated incident. Ask anyone on Arran about the ferries and they’ll have a story for you. Cancelled sailings. Missed appointments. Empty shelves. The ferry service has become unreliable in a way that it simply never was five to 10 years ago and the question is, why and also – how do we fix it? As one reader put it in the letters page of The Herald the other day: Please, can’t someone do something to help the people of Arran?

So the job today is to try to find out what the “something” should be. We all know about the ferry contracts fiasco: the two new vessels, the over-runs, the crisis at Fergusons shipyard, the nationalisation, the £250m cost and counting (original price: £97m), and the fact the ferries still haven’t been delivered. Their numbers – 801 and 802 – have now become infamous: symbols of poor planning, poor leadership and poor value for money.

But there are other problems too, which the islanders I speak to bring up again and again: a shaky booking system, piers and other bits of infrastructure that aren’t fit for purpose, an apparently risk-averse attitude to the weather by the ferry operators, and a lack of consultation with the islanders. Not only that, almost everyone I speak to says that, even when it’s finished, 801 – or the Glen Sannox as it will be known – is the wrong kind of ferry for Arran.

Neil Arthur – the man who tried to buy veg at the Co-op in Brodick – is pretty well placed to talk about all of this because he’s seen the changes as man and boy. Born in Glasgow, he was 10 months old when he first visited Arran in the 1940s with his family and moved to live on the island in the 1980s. What’s more, he’s seen Arran and the ferries from every angle: he worked on a farm, he was a driver making deliveries to and from the island, and for many years he commuted to a job in the fire service in London. A few years ago, he also had cancer and saw for himself the effect that the ferries can have on people’s well-being.

Now 75, retired, and living in the village of Blackwaterfoot on the west of the island, Arthur says the situation has become notably worse and tells me what it was like when he used to go to London for shifts in the fire service. “I don’t recall ever missing a shift or not being there when I should have been and I was there for seven years,” he says. “I remember one night not getting home but I phoned the boat and there was a spare officer’s cabin and the skipper said, ‘We’ll get you in that.’ That wouldn’t happen now – I couldn’t sign up for a job in London now because of the unreliability of the service.”

Arthur has seen the unreliability in other ways too. He tells me about his cancer, which meant a long period of chemotherapy at Crosshouse Hospital in Kilmarnock and regular ferry trips to get there. Generally, it went well but he recalls one incident when he was waiting in Brodick with two others who also had hospital appointments.

“The boat came in and tied up,” he says. “It was a bit choppy but not bad. All of a sudden they took the ropes off the pier and said they were making their way back to Ardrossan. So three people missed their appointments.” He says he doesn’t like to dramatise these things – and his health is now good – but he also points out that chemo is made up for the specific person and if they don’t turn up, it’s lost – at great cost to the NHS.

Neil Arthur says the incident of the missed appointments also highlights a couple of the ongoing problems with the Arran ferry. First: the new pier at Brodick, which islanders say was built in the wrong direction meaning easterly winds pose a problem in a way they never did before. Arthur and others tell me that cancellations due to weather are also much more frequent than they were and it’s because CalMac, who runs the ferries, has become risk-averse.

But it’s not the only problem with the way the ferries are run. I speak to David Henderson, who farms at Kilpatrick just down the coast from Blackwaterfoot and tells me about the booking system. Try and book the Ardrossan to Brodick ferry for 7am for the following few days, he says, and the website will tell you it’s full and he’s right, it does. The problem, he says, is that if you turned up for the 7am, you’d actually get on the ferry because in reality it isn’t fully booked. Stuff like that can really mess with the smooth running of a community reliant on ferries.

“CalMac admit themselves their booking system is not fit for purpose,” says Henderson. He says a new system is supposedly coming soon – it was first promised in 2019 – but like the new ferries, it’s been delayed. What’s more, Henderson has very little confidence that the new system will be any better or more user-friendly than the old one.

The criticisms David Henderson has for the running of the ferries are similar to Neil Arthur’s. Other islanders tell me the same sort of thing. They all accept some cancellations due to weather are inevitable and living on an island can never be the same as living on the mainland but they also say that the cancellations have become more frequent. “It’s definitely got worse,” says Henderson. “Going back 10-20 years, there were very few days when you didn’t have a boat.”

Most of the islanders also tell me that the new ferry, the Glen Sannox, is not the right choice for Arran and was commissioned in the face of opposition from the community. I speak to Sheila Gilmore, a born-and-bred Arranach who’s now chief executive of Visit Arran which promotes and supports the island and its businesses, and she tells me one of the big problems is that the people making the decisions don’t live in the community. “We need people who are going to be here and respond,” she says.

The commissioning of the Glen Sannox is a case in point. When the plans were at an early stage, CalMac (Caledonian MacBrayne) had a meeting with islanders and laid out the plans for the new ferry and most of the residents said it was the wrong choice. What they really needed was two small vessels to run back-to-back with each other, they said. Not only would it mean there would always be a spare should one break down, smaller vessels are also more resilient to bad weather. Had CalMac gone for smaller boats, they would also have avoided the need to upgrade and expand the pier at Ardrossan to accommodate the much bigger Glen Sannox.

But assuming the option of smaller boats has been ruled out for the short term at least, can we see some other solutions coming over the horizon? There’s a rumour going round that Arran will end up getting both 801 and 802 – farmer David Henderson says he’s 99 per cent certain it will happen and Transport Scotland, the Scottish Government agency responsible for the ferries, ran the idea past islanders in a meeting recently. Their reaction was that two might be better than one but that the big ferries were still the wrong choice for Arran.

There are some other things that could be done to help however. Chris Attkins is secretary of the Arran Ferry Action Group and tells me that the single biggest solution would be a default port of refuge at Gourock, meaning that if the weather was particularly bad there would be an alternative to Ardrossan. CalMac say the Arran vessel isn’t suitable for Gourock, but shouldn’t it be looked at as a longer-term possibility? It would mean that the people of Arran could usually be sure of at least one sailing a day. Many would also like the current vessel, MV Caledonian Isles, to be kept on as belt-and-braces after the Glen Sannox arrives.

The other improvement everyone agrees is needed is to the booking system. Islanders tell me that not only is the CalMac website an unreliable guide to whether a boat is full-up or not, the communication on delays or cancellations is poor. Islanders are not unused to turning up for a sailing only to be told a few minutes before they’re due to leave that it’s cancelled.

Sally Campbell, also a member of the Ferry Action Group, says an alternative is needed and says the first-come-first-served system needs replaced. Islanders cannot plan their trips for shopping or business or hospital appointments because holidaymakers who plan weeks or months ahead are allocated space on the ferries ahead of everyone else.

She suggests an alternative along the lines of the system used on the Danish island of Samso where there are two separate ticket allocations – one for locals and other regular users and one for visitors.

The other big issue for Campbell, and other islanders I speak to, is consultation. Scotland’s ferries work to a tripartite system: there’s the government agency Transport Scotland, there’s CMAL, the ferry procurement agency, and then there’s CalMac, the ferry operator, but the islanders feel that none of them are really listening to the islanders and looking to them for solutions.

“For God’s sake, come and talk to the islanders and listen to them and act on what we are saying,” says Campbell.

For many islanders, the current situation also comes back to bad management and leadership from Transport Scotland and the other parties involved.

Basically, the ferries currently in service have been allowed to get old – indeed, in the 15 years since the SNP came into power, they have put into service half the number of vessels that were put into service in the 15 years before that. It leaves the current network creaking at the seams.

An islander also sends me the figures on ferry capacity and they are striking. Compare the capacity for cars and passengers from 1992-2007 and 2007-2022 and the difference is startling.

The capacity for passengers is 37% of what it was before 2007 and for cars, the figure is 46.2%. Comparing the time it takes to replace the fleet is also shocking – prior to 2007, it would take 36 years. Now, at present build rates, it would 80. The consequences for reliability are obvious.

Islanders think changes at the top are needed to solve the problems – in particular they think that CMAL and Calmac should be merged – and with the Glen Sannox still not expected to be handed over until next year, it’s hard to disagree that change is required.

Last week the former boss of Ferguson, Jim McColl, claimed ministers wasted £200m by rejecting an offer to end the impasse over the two ferries and First Minister Nicola Sturgeon acknowledged at a recent meeting of the public audit committee that the decisions around the procurement of the vessels, their progress (or lack of progress) and the Scottish Government’s support of Ferguson were concerning. The current management however, she says, is doing a good job.

The Scottish Government says the option of deploying 802 to Arran as well as 801 is open and they will be setting out a long-term investment programme for vessels and ports in due course. They tell me they’ve made it clear that island communities, businesses and residents deserve better and are working hard to deliver the services and changes islanders need to see.

A Scottish Government spokesperson says: “Since this government was elected in May 2021, we have bought and deployed an additional vessel in MV Loch Frisa in June, made significant progress in the construction of vessels 801 and 802, commissioned two new vessels for Islay, progressed investment in essential harbour infrastructure, and now we are delivering a further two new vessels to help support island communities and improve the resilience of the Clyde and Hebrides network is underway.

“This will allow consideration of all options to deploy Vessel 802 on an alternative route, including potentially alongside her sister ship, the MV Glen Sannox, to provide additional capacity to and from Arran in the peak season.

“All the options will be discussed with island communities at the appropriate time. At the same time, we are continuing to work on pursuing all reasonable and appropriate opportunities to enhance capacity and resilience in the short term through secondhand vessels.

“We share the desires of island communities for sustainable and effective ferry services and look forward to continuing our constructive engagement with them on future services and vessel replacements.”

I also ask the Co-op for their take on the situation and they say they have bookings for two vehicles on the first available ferry every day, but they are only guaranteed a slot on that particular boat, which means it can lead to challenges or delays if the boat is cancelled.

A Co-op spokesperson says: “We’re proud to serve and support our island communities. We see it as a lifeline service with grocery supplies prioritised due to the unique locations and, supply increased to meet extra demand during the summer tourist seasons. Our teams work hard to keep stock levels maintained and replenished – however we are also at the mercy of the weather and the reliability of the ferries.”

As far as the islanders are concerned, the bottom line is capacity and reliability and they’re not convinced that the new vessel – the notorious 801 – combined with the other systemic problems they face every day, is the answer.

As someone who’s lived on the island her whole life, Visit Arran’s Sheila Gilmore says she and her fellow residents know the issues. “We need reliability of service,” she says. “We need to know supplies and workers will get on and islanders can get off as required.”

Longer term, islanders are clear how that can be achieved. They need two or three small, resilient ferries or catamarans, ensuring space capacity. They need a better booking system that prioritises residents and vital workers. They need improvements to the piers and ports to ensure the ferries can dock in bad weather. They need their ferries to be well managed and maintained and replaced when needed – on time.

And they need national leadership that prioritises the voice of the islanders so that if there are changes to be made, they listen to the residents and act on their advice. It sounds like a lot. But for an island community, it’s not too much to ask, is it?

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