Frustrated Scottish islanders plan to run their own ferry service | Scotland

Scottish islanders who are fed up with the country’s slumping ferry service are to investigate the running of their own ferries, claiming they have lost patience with government clumsiness.

After years of service cancellations and outages, the islanders of Mull and Iona want to replace car ferries run by state-owned company CalMac with their own community-run service, using three faster catamarans.

Their announcement came as Nicola Sturgeon, the Prime Minister, prepares for an MSP investigation into allegations that a botched ferry building contract was rigged to save one of the Clyde’s last shipyards.

Sturgeon is due to appear before Holyrood’s public audit committee on Friday as part of its investigation into costly overruns that have hit the construction of two much-needed ferries to Arran and the Western Isles. She will have to face difficult questions.

The purpose-built ferries were due to enter service in 2018 at a cost of £97million. Now at least five years behind schedule, spending watchdog Audit Scotland predicts the boats will cost at least £240million.

A BBC Scotland documentary alleged last month that Ferguson Marine, the Clyde shipyard that won the contract in 2016, secretly received the vessels’ precise specifications, drawn up by the owner of the government ferry CMAL, when it was bidding for the works.

The BBC said this allowed the company to totally revise its designs midway through the tendering process – a change no other bidders were allowed to make. Ferguson’s was also able to bid without proving that it had bank guarantees as insurance against contract failure.

After a series of government delays and bailouts totaling £45million, the company collapsed in administration and had to be nationalized in 2019 by the Scottish government to secure the construction of the ferries.

Both ferries are designed to use climate-friendly hybrid engines that run on batteries and liquid natural gas. It emerged earlier this week that the first vessel due to enter service in 2023, the Glen Sannox, will run on diesel for seven months because the yard failed to order a crucial part for the hybrid engines.

John Swinney, Sturgeon’s deputy, told the BBC that documentary ministers shared responsibility for the Ferguson debacle. “There was a collective failure,” he said, later saying MSP Audit Scotland had been tasked with investigating the BBC allegations.

Jim McColl, a millionaire investor and former ally of Alex Salmond, the former prime minister, who owned Ferguson’s when the contracts were awarded, insisted he did not know at the time that any no other bidder had these specifications.

“Looking back, it put us in a very strong position,” he said, and denied any wrongdoing.

Opposition parties say the Ferguson fiasco is just one of many troubled Scottish National Party government deals that have put hundreds of millions of pounds of taxpayers’ money at risk, including the purchase of the Prestwick Airport and underwriting guarantees worth £545 million for ailing aluminium. foundry at Fort William.

For islanders it is emblematic of a sometimes chaotic ferry service that has severely damaged vital tourism for the Hebrides, left islanders unable to get to hospital appointments, weddings and sporting fixtures, and resulted in millions of pounds in trading losses for traders. , farmers and entrepreneurs.

They say the services are deteriorating. Between January and September this year, CalMac, the company which operates 34 ferries between 50 ports across the islands and the west coast, canceled more than 8,100 departures, including 1,500 for mechanical reasons.

Joe Reade, chairman of the Mull & Iona ferry committee and owner of the Tobermory-based Island Bakery, said their islands already had a strong tradition of community ownership, including forests, affordable housing and the buyout of Ulva, an island just off the west coast of Mull.

The Hebrides ferry services in Scotland are a fully state-run monopoly: CalMac runs the services and CMAL owns the boats. Both are overseen by Transport Scotland, a government agency that manages the country’s road networks and oversees public transport.

In a sign of the local importance of the problem, the feasibility study into the costs and risks of Mull running its own ferry service is being funded by another state agency, Highlands and Islands Enterprise.

“The Hebrides ferry services are among the most inefficient, expensive and costly in the world,” Reade said.

“We need more capacity, higher frequency, better reliability, greater weather resistance, longer hours of operation and more convenience.

“These improvements can only be achieved if ferries are cheaper to buy and operate. Currently, no one has an interest in improving the price-performance ratio.

With Ferguson now set to complete the ferries, the Scottish government is hoping the Holyrood inquiry will put an end to this saga. At the end of October, he announced that two new ferries were on order for £115million, using the same design as two boats being built – in Turkey – for services to Islay.

“The Scottish Government is absolutely committed to improving the vital ferry fleet and better meeting the needs of island communities,” said Jenny Gilruth, Minister for Transport.

Reade remains impressed; these new ferries were first offered in 2012, he said, and remain far more expensive than necessary.

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