Friday, September 2, 2011

Mallaig to Lochboisdale Ferry

The island of South Uist (pop. 1,950) in the Outer Hebrides considers itself badly served by Caledonian MacBrayne's car ferry services.

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
But the big problem with the Lochboisdale-Oban service is that there are only four departures a week (compared with eleven from Lochmaddy to Uig) and one of these sails via Castlebay on the neighbouring island of Barra (pop. 1,000) adding another 1h 30m to the journey (though nothing to the cost). The lower frequency is not just because of the much longer crossing but also due to the same ship also being Barra's only link to the mainland in a "triangular" service to Oban.

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:-

The Mallaig option looks like a total no-brainer until you factor in that Calmac said it would need a new ship to operate the service. This was because the people of Barra had made it clear they wanted to retain Oban as their mainland port (it's a much longer crossing to Mallaig from Castlebay than it is from Lochboisdale) so it wasn't just a question of relocating the existing services from Oban to Mallaig. The prospect of c.£25m for a new ship gave Calmac's paymasters in the Scottish Government a big problem.

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 - picture credit Hugh Spicer


  1. there are possibly in excess of 100 vehicles on the waiting list to get to Uist/Barra every week.
    There are 1176 car spaces available, weekly, on sailings between Lochmadddy and Uig and 612 between Lochboisdale/Castlebay and Oban. If there was a Lochboisdale - Mallaig service and an improved Castlebay - Oban service an extra 200 car spaces per week would be available and those on the waiting list could get a confirmed booking and those who do not even bother booking will have the chance to travel.
    Ferries serving Lochboisdale and Castlebay currently spend 97.5 hours at sea carrying out their weekly timetable. If a Lochboisdale - Mallaig service and an improved Castlebay - Oban service were introduced the ferries would be at sea for 119 hours meaning an increase of just 21.5 hours per week. As the ships are available and already crewed then surely the only figure to be accounted for in increased subsidy would be the fuel costs.
    If this service were to be introduced it would improve the economy in the south end of South Uist which is in dire need of investment.

  2. useful explanation of the background to the Mallaig pilot service, for a regular islands visitor from the Scottish Borders.