What’s the story?

MULTIPLE ferries have been out of action for long periods across the CalMac fleet, but one of the worst-affected services has been the Corran Narrows, the running of which is overseen by Highland Council.

The five-minute crossing is the busiest single vessel crossing in Scotland, servicing commuters travelling to and from Fort William, Ardnamurchan and Mull.

In an average year, the service carries more than 270,000 cars – but this has not been an average year.

The issues began when the primary vessel, the MV Corran, was taken into drydock for its regular service.

This happened in October 2022, but issues with the propulsion system have kept it away.

Its replacement, the MV Maid of Glencoul, is smaller than the MV Corran, meaning that wait times on both sides of the water were much longer as fewer passengers could go on each crossing.

Ardgour and Corran saw queues up the road for hundreds of metres at the beginning of the tourist season in April, slowing traffic considerably.

But then, shortly after the beginning of the busiest time of year, the roads leading to the piers went quiet, as the MV Maid broke down.

How has it impacted businesses?

OVER the easter weekend, Corran and Ardgour fell silent, as traffic was being diverted west of Fort William rather than south.

Now there is a 42-mile detour for drivers, around Loch Linnhe and Loch Eil. With considerably less people driving through, businesses are struggling.

Owners of hotels in the area reported more than half of their bookings being cancelled outright, and shops rarely see customers.

Joanne Matheson, owner of local craft shop Artisan, said: “My business is very quiet.

“Someone said this morning if it carries on like this, I won’t be open this time next year because it’s summer business that enables us to survive through the winter.”

Are they calling the military in?

HIGHLAND Council requested military aid for the route when it became clear the problems with MV Maid were not going to be a quick fix.

The Ministry of Defence (MoD) was assessing what assistance it could provide and needed to do a full risk assessment before agreeing on the support, with a military team visiting the area to do so.

After six weeks, there was still no response.

Local man Jeff Forrester said: “In my opinion, the MoD was just to string everybody along, it’s basically kicking the can down the street trying to keep us appeased.

“They could have given the order earlier. I get the impression that there’s a financial element Highland Council don’t want to go down.

“The words that keep coming from them are this is unexpected. It’s not unexpected, they’ve had 10 years of communities advising that the ferries were ageing and that they needed replacing and they’ve done nothing about it.

“Everything they’re trying to do is knee-jerk reaction.” What comes next?

Highland Council came up with a solution, requesting £50 million of funding from the UK Government’s Levelling Up Fund for a new electric ferry which it has been planning for years.

It said the decision would be beneficial for Scotland’s net-zero targets, as well as for the local community.

Chair of the Economy and Infrastructure Committee councillor Ken Gowans said: “The loss of service due to the ageing vessels has brought into focus the need to look to the future and have a sustainable solution for the Corran Ferry crossing.

“I’m pleased that members have agreed we can press ahead with preparing an application to the Levelling Up Fund and in the meantime, we will continue to work closely with the local communities to provide support and the current contingency measures will remain in place until the ferry is back in operation.”

Are there other suggestions?

Many would prefer a fixed link – and polling of locals found that 75% wanted a bridge to be built.

Due to the short distance between Corran and Ardgour, those behind that plan believe that a fixed link is more than possible.

Highland Council agreed this was “a viable option” in 2020, noting that it would improve connectivity and reduce travel costs.

The council’s study estimated that a bridge could be built for £42m to £50m, but this has since changed. When asked about this, Highland Council said: “Even prior to 2020, the council agreed a fixed link for Corran was the preferred long-term option. “However, it was never considered to be affordable as a council-led project and so the council engaged with Transport Scotland to try to have it included in the Strategic Transport Projects Review 2 as one of Transport Scotland’s strategic priorities for investment.

“But this was unsuccessful. The council has since invested £1.6m in developing a replacement ferry option.

“However, a fixed link remains the long-term aspiration. The two are not mutually exclusive because the timeframe for getting a fixed link in place, even if funding could be secured, means that a sustainable replacement ferry option is essential.

“The option being pursued could have a new ferry in place as early as the first half of 2026.”

Amid the cost of living crisis and rocketing price of building materials, the bridge would now come at an even steeper price.

Forrester said: “The goalposts have changed, originally it was going to be £70, for two electric ferries, because of the increase in the volume of traffic they forecasted in the years to come.

“Now because of the financial side they’re trying to do things faster – the Levelling Up Fund will only be for one electric ferry and infrastructure.

“We’ve given them many comparisons for a fixed link, which could be done in 27 months, and for £78m – much quicker than the new ferry.

“But the most important thing is that there has never been a proper consultation with communities to see what we actually want, they’ve ploughed ahead with these plans and now we’re going into a situation where we’ve got businesses closing the door.”

Another local, Joanne, agreed, saying: “Highland Council decided right at the very beginning of this project in 2017 that they wanted electric ferries.

“They call the community consultation group the steering group and that’s exactly what they’ve done, they’ve steered us down the route they wanted to take back in 2017.

“They wanted to argue the case for electric ferries because it would enable them to go a long way towards meeting their climate-change targets, and that’s exactly what happened.

“We know there’s better value for money options, and every person in the UK should be up in arms about this, this is not the best use of taxpayers’ money.”

Ferry service at Corran is expected to resume by mid-June.