It might surprise you, as it did me, that it’s the Corran ferry – across Loch Linnhe, south of Fort William, to the Ardgour peninsula. A landmark for those heading to and from Fort William on the A82, the service carries 270,000 cars annually and is growing at 2 per cent a year.
However, what might appear to be a success story masks a chronic problem that’s affecting this vital link just as much as the more widely publicised shortcomings of vessels on the surrounding west coast CalMac network – an ageing, overworked fleet.
The ferry plying the Corran Narrows and its back-up vessel are 23 and 47 years old respectively. The latter, Maid of Glencoul, is nearly four decades into a second career after working in Sutherland until the Kylesku Bridge was opened.
As the operator, Highland Council, will tell MSPs on Tuesday, they need “urgent replacement” because of their age, reliability and capacity. It’s become a familiar call from those who use CalMac’s ferries – many of which are beyond their service life, but are being worked harder than ever thanks to new routes, extra traffic fuelled by fare cuts and no spare vessel to limit disruption when one breaks down.
Holyrood’s net zero, energy and transport committee is also due to hear from other ferry operators in parts of Scotland who may also be out of the CalMac spotlight, but are struggling with similar, significant challenges.
Orkney Islands Council, which runs its inter-island network, described its ferries, which are more than 30 years old, as “well past retirement age”, but will point out no Scottish Government funding has been secured for replacements.
It also observed its passengers have not benefited from the “road equivalent tariff” fare cuts introduced across the CalMac network, and service frequency was below Scottish Government yardsticks, yet “to push the existing ageing fleet harder would most likely result in reliability issues”.
Ministers may feel they have enough a headache getting CalMac back onto an even keel. But what MSPs will be told this week will make it very clear the pain is also being felt on other islands, who feel they are getting even worse treatment to boot.