The first thing I did when I arrived on the Hebridean Isles a little over a week ago was to buy a copy of the Ileach. One can not do without on Islay and I was surprised to read the following article:
In May 2008, the Ileach asked CMAL 'Could you tell us whether the new ship will be able to operate from the existing linkspans and infrastructure at Kennacraig, Port Ellen and Port Askaig, or whether they will each have to be modified to accommodate the new vessel?'
They responded : 'Whilst the existing infrastructure on Islay and the mainland will accommodate the new ferry it is CMALâ€™s intention to instigate a modernisation programme to precede the delivery of the new ferry in 2011 as the current facilities at Port Ellen and Kennacraig are coming to the end of their working life. It is anticipated that the modernisation programme will allow the larger vessels of the CalMac fleet to operate from these terminals'.
On 28th November 2008 in response to our enquiry about whether the redevelopment of Kennacraig and Port Ellen would be simultaneous or consecutive we received the following: 'With regards to the new Islay ferry and potential developments at Port Ellen and Kennacraig, the new vessel will be able to use the existing ports as they are at present, however this is not ideal and some minor modifications are being developed.' Continue reading.....On Monday February 23rd we again wrote to CMAL as follows: '(We are) now being told that the situation has changed and that the new Islay ferry will not be able to operate from Kennacraig, Port Askaig or Port Ellen as they are at present? (Our) information is quite specific. (We are) being told that significant work will have to take place to modify the new linkspan at Port Askaig and that this work has been costed at approx Â£500,000. It says that works costing a similar amount will need to be carried out at Kennacraig. It also says that it will not be able to operate from the present Port Ellen infrastructure at all - and that serious redevelopment costing at least Â£10 million will be required. If (our) information is correct, then this would mean the 'de facto' closure of Port Ellen as a ferry port when the new Islay ferry commences operations? Certainly for years, if not for good?
We have received the following reply: 'Caledonian Maritime Assets Limitedâ€™s aim is to provide safe and appropriate vessels, harbours and related facilities for use by the operator of the Clyde and Hebrides ferry services, and other parties as well as to advise Scottish Ministers about strategic planning in relation to the same. That is what is happening on both the Islay route and elsewhere on the Clyde & Hebrides network. 'With the design of the new Islay vessel now finalised and construction underway, detailed design work is currently ongoing in respect of the associated pier and harbour infrastructure. The new vessel will be able to be berth safely and securely at the recently completed Port Askaig facility. The new vessel can also be accommodated at the existing Kennacraig facility. At Port Ellen, detailed examination has revealed that passengers and vehicles could not be accommodated in its current form. 'CMAL will continue to work very hard to consider how best to develop improvement works at Port Ellen and Kennacraig. 'We are holding public meetings in Port Ellen and Tarbert on 10th & 11th March where we hope to feedback from the public consultation and detail our preferred construction timetable subject to funding.'
Ferry at Port Ellen - soon to be history?
Some pages later the Ileach wrote the following: Why would CMAL order a Â£21 million ship for the Islay run that is incapable of operating from Port Ellen?
The question we must ask is, did the design brief of the new Islay ferry specify that it should be able to operate from Port Ellen? If it did, then CMAL should of course refuse to accept delivery of the new vessel on the grounds that it is not fit for purpose. If, on the other hand, the design brief for the new Islay ferry did not specify that it should be capable of operating from Port Ellen then the question is, why did it not? Why would CMAL order a Â£21 million ship for the Islay run that is incapable of operating from Port Ellen? The new ferry is due in March 2011. Suddenly, it is only two years away. Not only will the promised redevelopment of Kennacraig and Port Ellen not be ready at that time, the reality is that it is likely that neither will have even started by that date. Neither have yet been agreed, designed, or funded. We are still at the stage of preparing a 'Business Case' in which 'In order to secure funding for these projects from the public purse, as is the case with all funding applications , CMAL have to prove that there is a viable need for infrastructure improvements at these ports and that paying for this work would be value for money to the Scottish taxpayer.' (CMAL statement 28th November 2008). The danger is therefore that this 'Business Case' for the eventual redevelopment of Port Ellen will hinge on the number of times that the new ferry is cancelled due to northerly gales at Port Askaig, rather than any public consultation about the need to maintain two ports on Islay. The Ileach therefore believes that this 'Business Case' should be made public, prior to its submission to the Scottish Ministers.
On a personal note I would like to add the following: As you could have read, the bottom line is that the new ferry, currently being built in Poland and which will commence sailing the Islay route in 2011, won't fit at the pier in Port Ellen unless an investment takes place of around 10 million pounds. Given the current financial situation I don't think CMAL will pay this amount of money to operate to a second ferry port on Islay. I have also heard stories that the pier at Port Ellen isn't very reliable at this very moment and could be shut down due to safety regulations altogether. These are all rumours of course and nothing is confirmed.
If the new ferry doesn't fit Port Ellen it will use Port Askaig instead. In the meanwhile the second ferry will most likely keep on sailing to Port Ellen so there should be no harm done, yet. But what will happen if the second ferry is replaced as well? Could that mean the end of ferry services to and from Port Ellen? Is this a bad thing? You can ask yourself the question why a relatively small island needs two ferry terminals to begin with. From what I have heard is that ferries aren't able to use Port Askaig when there are strong north-westerly gales and the ferries use Port Ellen instead, but how often does that happen? What does happen very frequently in the winter season is that ferries, bound for Port Ellen, divert to Port Askaig when there is a bad weather situation. In any case the future of Port Ellen as a ferry terminal doesn't look very bright. And even if the ferry terminal would be reconstructed to fit a new big ferry, where are they going to leave all the cars that wait for the ferry? And the cars that people leave if they continue as foot passenger? I personally think Port Ellen is just too small for all this, but who am I? When I spoke to people on Islay some of them were afraid that it could hit Port Ellen economically, specially the accommodation providers. On the other hand some people thought it would turn out to be a good move for Port Ellen. The marina is probably better off when there isn't a ferry terminal anymore and people will now come to Port Ellen to visit the place instead of racing through it when the ferry arrives. If you ask me this was planned from the beginning and it probably was the intention all along to skip Port Ellen as ferry terminal.
Ferry at the new linkspan at Port Askaig
Now back to Port Askaig. Even Port Askaig apparently needs some modifications worth at approx Â£500,000, and I had a closer look at the linkspan when I left Islay on Saturday. You can see on the picture above that the ferry ramp, when lowered, is placed on the left side of the linkspan. It is certain that the new ferry is bigger which probably means that the ramp, most likely centered on the new vessel as well, will end up even further from the side of the port which ultimately means it wouldn't fit the new link-span at Port Askaig. In turn that could mean that the new ferry doesn't fit Port Askaig either. Of course these are all assumptions and not based on any real data of the new ship, but I wouldn't be surprised if this would be the case. That could mean that more investments have to be done at Port Askaig than currently planned amount. There will be a public meeting tonight on Islay and I bet there will be a lot of people and even more tough questions for CMAL to answer as a result of the publicity in the Ileach. Well done Ileach Newspaper!!
This story was published with kind permission of the Ileach local newspaper.