Transport Minister Jenny Gilruth is facing pressure to deliver an urgent statement to parliament on ferry problems blighting island communities.
The MV Hebrides, which sails between Lochmaddy in North Uist, Tarbert in Harris and Uig on Skye, is out of action due to a reocurring problem with its firefighting system.
CalMac is redeploying MV Isle of Mull – which serves the busy Oban to Mull route – as a short-term fix.
But islanders say affected communities are being “slowly strangled” by the ongoing ferry debacle, which has a “hugely damaging and disruptive impact” on businesses.
Work to repair the 21-year-old MV Hebrides is expected to be completed on Saturday evening, with ferry bosses anticipating the vessel will return to service on Sunday.
Transport Scotland confirmed ministers have requested a “thorough investigation” into the fault after the ferry was withdrawn twice in the space of a week.
The crisis has prompted Willie Rennie, Liberal Democrat economy spokesman, to call on Ms Gilruth to update MSPs on what is being done to tackle the growing issues.
He said: “If half the transport links to the first minister’s constituency were removed overnight her constituents would be beating down her door and I’m sure a solution would be found in short order.
“Because this affects island communities, far from the central belt, residents are just expected to grin and bear it, even as their businesses suffer and their family members struggle to get to medical appointments.
“I believe that this is serious enough that the parliament should be recalled and the minister made to explain why years of under-investment in our ferry network has been allowed to lead us here.”
Islanders want ‘urgent’ action
Joe Reade, chairman of the Mull and Iona Ferry Committee, said while a parliamentary debate is “all well and good”, what communities need is “action, and urgently”.
He said: “Untold millions have been poured into Fergusons in order to support a dying industrial totem and a few hundred central belt jobs.
“Meantime, the communities and economy of the Hebrides are being slowly strangled, when there are ways this crisis could be ameliorated quickly and cheaply.
“We are suffering from long-term management and strategic failure, and it will take years to bring the fleet back into a reasonable state.”
An island businessman is calling for a second boat and tunnel to serve the Western Isles to finally end the “reshuffling” of the west coast ferry routes.
Roddy MacKay, from Benbecula, said the problems are leading to the “island clearances”.
He previously told the Press and Journal: “People are starting to go elsewhere rather than visit the islands, and they are choosing to go somewhere much easier to get to.”
Robbie Drummond, managing director of CalMac, admitted “moving vessels around is not ideal” but said without any spare tonnage it is often the “only available option to continue to operate lifeline services”.
Transport Scotland responds
A Transport Scotland spokesman said Ms Gilruth convened a resilience meeting on Thursday night with the local MP, MSP, councillor and other stakeholders including the Ferries Communities Board and Harris Development Ltd.
He added: “CalMac, as the operator, provided an update on the vessel movements movements to cover for the period of the outage.
“CalMac have added a number of additional sailings to help with essential supplies to the islands and we continue to work with CalMac and CMAL on potential resilience options for the fleet.
“This includes seeking potential second hand tonnage to improve operational resilience on the Clyde and Hebrides ferry routes.
“The previous charters of MV Arrow and recent purchase of the MV Utne (now MV Loch Frisa) are evidence of this ongoing commitment to improve and support the existing fleet in this way.
“Ministers recognise that having 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.
“These human impacts are at the heart of Scottish Ministers’ commitment to continued investment in ferry services across Scotland.”