SU's primary connection with the mainland is the ferry from Lochmaddy on North Uist (linked to SU by causeways) to Uig on Skye (linked to the mainland by a bridge). There are eleven departures a week in summer and the crossing takes 1h 45m.
But the downside is that, depending where you live on SU, it's a drive of anywhere between 22 and 47 miles - distances unparalleled on the islands served by Calmac - to even get to the point of departure at Lochmaddy. Then, when you ariive at Uig, it's a 230 mile drive to Glasgow.
Total time from SU to Glasgow via Lochmaddy-Uig (including Calmac's vehicle check-in time of 45 minutes) - 8h 55m; total cost (60p/mile plus ferry fare for car and one passenger) - £190
There is an alternative. There's also a ferry from Lochboisdale on South Uist to Oban. At 5h 10m, it's the longest crossing in the Calmac network but on the plus side, Oban is only 96 miles from Glasgow - less than half the distance from Uig.
Total time from SU to Glasgow via Lochboisdale-Oban - 8h 25m; total cost - £130
|Calmac ferry MV Lord of the Isles at Lochboisdale - Photo credit Allan Macdonald|
What the people of South Uist would ideally like is a dedicated ferry running from Lochboisdale to Mallaig. This is a crossing of 3h 20m and Mallaig is 150 miles from Glasgow so the total journey time is 7h 55m - quicker than going via Uig or Oban. Because Calmac's fares are calculated on the basis of "Road Equivalent Tariff" (i.e. the fare is the same as it would cost to drive to the mainland as if there were a causeway, currently set at 60p/mile to include fuel and all other costs associated with running a car such as tyres, insurance and depreciation etc.), it's possible to predict the cost of SU to Glasgow via Mallaig at £145 - £45 cheaper than going via Lochmaddy. In 2006, Calmac proposed a scheme for a Lochboisdale-Mallaig service with fourteen departures a week (in summer; seven in winter) so let's put the three options on a grid:-
For a time there was a suggestion Calmac could charter a ferry called the Claymore. She had been built by Calmac in 1978 specifically to serve Barra and South Uist from Oban but was retired from that route in 1989 and in 2006/07 was surplus to the requirements of Pentland Ferries, a private company running to Orkney. But there were serious question marks over the suitability of a 30 year old ferry to serve South Uist again and the suggestion lapsed.
|The Claymore at Castlebay, Barra in the 1980s|
And so the Mallaig option remained in the long grass until 2011 when things changed by Calmac taking delivery of a new vessel, the Finlaggan, to serve the island of Islay. The reason why that made a difference to South Uist is that Islay had been being served by two ferries, the Isle of Arran and the Hebridean Isles. With the advent of the Finlaggan, one of these two - it's not yet been decided which on a long term basis but generally assumed to be the IoA - will become available to be redeployed elsewhere. So it can become the Mallaig-Lochboisdale ferry, right?
Well not quite. As ever, things are not quite so simple. The reason is that, before the Finlaggan came along, one of the two Islay ferries was also the fleet reserve, liable to be called away at any time to cover for a break-down elsewhere in the network. This happened in summer 2010 and caused howls of protest from Islay that they were being deprived of one of "their" ferries. But with the advent of the Finlaggan, the theory was that the Isle of Arran would be released to be on permanent stand-by, tied up somewhere but ready to sail at a moment's notice: Islay would never again be deprived of one of its two ferries.
|Calmac ferry Lord of the Isles at Lochboisdale - photo credit Allan Macdonald|
But couldn't the Isle of Arran not at least be sailing between Lochboisdale and Mallaig rather than be tied up idle when there are no other calls on its time - would that not be consistent with the "pilot study" of the route local politicians are calling for? Well possibly but these pilot studies tend to be genies it's difficult to put back into bottles: as soon as the IoA was called away from South Uist, the same local politicians would doubtless be hurling abuse at Calmac/the SG that "their" ferry had been taken away. And there may be other calls on the IoA - Arran (the island, not the ferry) is looking for a bigger second ferry to run there in summer next year, an option that would doubtless be far more profitable to Calmac (i.e. less of a drain on the taxpayer) than SU ...
So what to do? Damned if you do, damned if you don't. Not even please some of the people all of the time ... Glad I'm not the Transport Minister.
|Leaving Lochboisdale - Photo credit Hugh Spicer|