It is the ’emergency’ ferry that is costing £1m of public money a month to charter but cannot provide lifeline services on at least one of CalMac’s busiest routes.
But it is not stopping moves to extend the stay of not just one but two emergency ferries.
MV Alfred, which remains out of action having broken down for the second time in a month – is due to make a comeback covering for one of Scottish Government-owned ferry operator CalMac’s busiest routes – to and from Arran on Saturday.
That is after it was discovered it was unable to fit in the port of Stornoway on the Isle of Lewis.
It meant plans for it to provide freight services to and from Lewis had to be scrapped because it cannot fit on a linkspan – a drawbridge used mainly in the operation of moving vehicles on and off a roll-on/roll-off vessels.
MV Alfred, owned by Pentland Ferries, was brought in at the end of April for nine months to begin a charter to help ease lifeline service ‘chaos’ caused by breakdowns of CalMac’s ageing fleet.
Now it has emerged that moves are underway to extend the use of MV Alfred as well as making use of another emergency ferry.
It is understood that there are hopes for an extension of the MV Alfred charter for another six months and perhaps even longer.
Documents seen by The Herald relating to September discussions over ferry services involving CalMac and Transport Scotland show that while not completely agreed yet, CalMac are planning for the summer timetable on the basis that both MV Alfred and another chartered vessel MS Arrow are available.
It comes as doubts have been raised over whether the first of Scotland’s much-delayed ferry fiasco vessels, Glen Sannox, will be ready to go in time for next summer in the wake of further design issues.
A new wave of issues led to the redesign of evacuation routes for the two vessels currently being readied at nationalised Ferguson Marine (Port Glasgow) and was expected to lead to new delays with capital costs now approaching £400m – over four times the original £97m contract.
Before the latest problems, trials of Glen Sannox were not expected to be completed until at least March and CalMac requires a further two months of further trials before it can go into service while the summer season starts around April 1.
A six month extension of MV Alfred based on the current deal would cost taxpayers £6m on top of the £9m already committed.
Freight vessel MS Arrow, which has previously been brought in as an emergency short-term charter, is due to make a comeback and is being chartered from November 2 to 15 and will cover for the Stornoway freight service. CalMac, which has received nearly £900m in taxpayer subsidies from the Scottish Government to run west coast ferry services till 2021/22, has declined to divulge the costs of the public contract saying it is a “commercially confidential contract”.
Scotland’s Ferries | The ‘missing’ £128m in ScotGov’s take on cost of ferries scandal
The Isle of Man government-owned Isle of Man Steam Packet Company bought the vessel for just £8m two years ago.
Two years ago CalMac confirmed it was forking out £11,760-a-day to charter MV Arrow for ten days without the costs associated with crewing, fuelling, and berthing. The details were divulged after Transport Scotland said the public contract was “commercially sensitive”.
The deal to bring in MV Alfred was agreed upon before berthing trials were conducted to find out which ports it was able to operate from.
The vessel, which is at the centre of a crash investigation dating back to the summer of last year, is operated on behalf of CalMac by its owner Pentland Ferries.
CalMac had admitted at the time that it will not be able to deliver services in line with current timetables, due to the vessel’s design and shape.
The 25-year-old Estonia-built MS Arrow, meanwhile, can take up to 65 trailers.
One ferry user group official said that there needed to be a clear idea over what ports could handle MV Alfred and to what degree.
“It shows how desperate things have got that we had chartered at least one vessel without fully knowing what services it can bring and where,” he said. “The fear is that having an extension to the charter is a clear sign of a continuing shift of the timeline for completing of the ferries islanders are crying out.
“The service cannot run with so much uncertainty over so much but CalMac can only work with the tools it has been given.”
MV Alfred is scheduled to come back online on Saturday when it will replace the much larger MV Caledonian Isles, on the busy route to and from Brodick on the Isle of Arran. Caledonian Isles is being used for network berthing trials.
Caledonian Isles, which can carry 1000 passengers, around double the capacity of MV Alfred, is being used for network berthing trials.
The Isle of Arran Ferry Committee has requested that the Scottish Government-owned ferry operator CalMac provides more information about the timetable to be applied.
CalMac told one user group: “We do apologise for this temporary impact to timetabled service, due to the critical need to undertake these berthing trials – however please be assured that should the Caledonian Isles be able to return to the Clyde any earlier than that currently planned, we will of course enable that.”
A Transport Scotland spokesman said: “The current charter is due to expire in January, although there will be additional time added to reflect the period the vessel has been out of service and off charter.”