After recent meetings with both the Minister for Transport Jenny Gilruth and the most senior official in Transport Scotland’s Ferries Unit, we are encouraged by the positive response to the ‘Samso System’ proposal. The system would create a level playing-field for vehicle bookings in summer, by running separate reservation lists for locals and visitors. The aim is to make it more likely for islanders to get car tickets in summer, regardless of when they book. Car deck space would be reserved only for the use of locals and regular users (eg GPs, delivery vehicles), on a dynamic sailing-by-sailing basis.
We recently consulted Mull and Iona on this idea with an online survey that received more than 700 responses. A matching survey was carried out on Arran by the Arran Ferry Action Group, and Coll islanders have also been canvassed. On all four islands, there was overwhelming support for the idea of 95-96%.It now looks like government have taken notice of the problem and our suggested solution. Transport Scotland have now been tasked by the Transport Minister with investigating the proposal further.
During our meeting with TS, we were told that the first step would be to discuss the operational and technical details with CalMac – primarily how their new IT systems could administer it. CalMac have already indicated to us that they have the tools to implement it, but the fine detail will need to be considered.
Transport Scotland’s early assumption is that summer ’23 will be targeted for first introduction of the system. This will most likely be on a trial basis, on a limited number of routes. Craignure-Oban is obviously the prime candidate for that trial, but Arran and Coll are also likely to be keen to be involved. We understand that a similar survey to our own is soon to be carried out on Tiree. If that is positive, then trial introduction on services out of Oban to Mull, Coll and Tiree could be achievable next summer.
This is certainly very positive news, but we still have a long way to go and nothing is certain. We have a further meeting planned with Jenny Gilruth for mid-August, when this will be a key topic for further discussion.
On a different topic – Winter Timetables
Winter timetables for 22/23 are still awaited. For Mull and Iona, we have the promise of an ‘Island Focussed’ service, thanks to the introduction of the Loch Frisa. By basing the ferry in Craignure, earlier departures and later returns will be possible. It has also proven necessary to double-crew the new ferry, which opens up the possibility of an extended operating day – so long as there is a berth free in Oban.
However, what was originally billed as a ‘second winter vessel’ for Mull has more recently been described by CalMac as the ‘core vessel’. This is a change of emphasis that suggests that most sailings will be operated by the Loch Frisa, with much more limited use of major vessels like the MV Isle of Mull. We have expressed concern about this on two fronts –
- Daily capacity could end up being considerably lower than we need, particularly in early and late winter, and at peak times like Christmas. The Loch Frisa can only take 34 cars, compared with the Isle of Mull’s 66 and the Coruisk’s 40. There are early indications that space limitations have worsened – many travellers report having their Coruisk bookings moved or cancelled, and HGVs are being discouraged from using her. A winter timetable with over-reliance on the Loch Frisa could be as difficult to book as our summer service.
- Weather reliability could be poor. If you’ve travelled on the Loch Frisa, you may have noticed that it is quite ‘lively’. It is clear that it was designed for a sheltered fjord, rather than the kind of sea conditions we have on the West of Scotland. We are concerned that the Loch Frisa will be prone to cancellation in poor weather – even more so than the MV Isle of Mull.
As soon as we have a draft winter timetable, we will share it.