On February 27th our Chair Elizabeth Ferguson, accompanied by vice-chair Ben Wilson and Treasurer Joe Reade met with the Minister for Energy, Connectivity & the Islands Paul Wheelhouse MSP. With us were Michael Russell MSP, and officers from Transport Scotland.
We were there to press for progress on two key issues –
Our long-running campaign to enable the MV Isle of Mull to berth overnight during winter was top of our priorities. Regardless of the outcome of the ongoing STAG appraisal of Craignure pier, a step toward a fully island-focused service could be delivered for the winter of 2019/20. This could be done by extending the sailing day, with earlier departures from Oban and later returns from Craignure. This would give a full 8 hours on the mainland every weekday; the ability to connect the the 9am train ex Oban every day; less likelihood of needing to stay overnight on the mainland to make travel connections, and many other benefits.
Following our pre-Christmas meeting on Mull with Transport Scotland, extra money has been secured from government to fund the additional crew that this extended timetable would need. (quite how much we are unsure, but likely to be in the hundreds of thousands of pounds annually).
The new timetable that was offered by CalMac with Transport Scotland approval has been the subject of detailed examination and negotiation over the following two weeks. Whilst it offers some improvements, insufficient consideration has been given to maintaining connections to and from Iona; and there is also the likelihood that island-bound mail would be delayed due to the re-shuffled departure times.
We have countered the timetable offered with a compromise proposal of our own, that would maintain Iona connections and ensure the mail was not delayed. This compromise timetable will need additional funding on top of what has been offered however, and at the time of writing we are awaiting a formal response from CalMac and Transport Scotland.
We are up against a very tight timescale if this new timetable is to be ready for next winter. We have until the end of this month at the very least to agree any changes, should Transport Scotland agree to fund them.
As soon as we have a final proposal from CalMac that meets minimum levels of acceptability, we will offer it to the communities of both Mull and Iona to approve or reject. In order to be quick and thorough we will do this via an online poll. It will not be agreed by MIFC unless it has the majority support of both Mull AND Iona.
So – keep your eyes peeled for news on this very soon!
We took the opportunity to deliver copies of our presentation on the worsening reliability record of the Oban-Craignure service. It was clear from the reaction of both Ministers that neither had seen such compelling empirical evidence for the deterioration before (though of course Michael Russell had heard plenty of anecdotal evidence from across his entire constituency).
We are currently awaiting a response to our findings from Robbie Drummond, the MD of CalMac. Having our MSP and the Minister responsible for ferries fully aware of the problem adds to the weight of our campaign, and puts added pressure on CalMac to come up with positive solutions. As soon as we have a response from Mr Drummond we will of course share it, and consider next steps to take. Already we have shared our data with other island groups including Islay and Arran, where the same deterioration in reliability is being felt.