FERRY fares for the northern isles lifeline routes will be cut sooner rather than later, according to Scottish transport and islands minister Humza Yousaf.
While on a visit to Shetland during the last two days, the minister also gave a commitment that the size of a reduction in ferry fares would be "meaningful", but he declined to commit to any figures.
And Yousaf said he could understand the frustration felt by islanders in Orkney and Shetland who had to witness significant reductions in ferry fares on west coast routes while the northern isles continued to face the most expensive ferry crossings in the country.
Earlier this week, the minister was accused of abandoning an election commitment when confirming a freeze on NorthLink ferry fares for another year rather than announcing the long-awaited cut in ferry fares.
Local ferry fares campaigner Ryan Thomson said he remained deeply disappointed with the fares freeze but added that following a half hour meeting with the minister he was more optimistic that a cut in fares would be delivered.
Thomson also handed over a petition with 3,300 signatures calling for fair ferry fares for Orkney and Shetland.
"I found it a very productive meeting and Mr Yousaf came across as genuinely interested and determined to reach a successful conclusion," Thomson said.
Speaking during a press briefing in Lerwick town hall, the minister said: "My preference is to get things moving before the new ferry contract commences in 2018."
"I won't be waiting years and years to do this, but I have to do it right; I have to make sure it follows a process, and I have to make sure it is sustainable for the long term.
"It has to be a meaningful reduction, but the scale of that is not something I would like to prejudge," he added.
Currently a family of four taking their car to the Scottish mainland would expect to fork out at least £500 for the journey, and that is despite an annual £40 million subsidy paid by the Scottish Government to operator Serco NorthLink.
Yousaf admitted that finding any extra money to further subsidise the service would be difficult in the current financial climate.
But a change in the lifeline contract as of 2018 could do the trick, he added.
"For the next contract we should be looking at increasing capacity and making it a better service. That would bring in more revenue, which means less subsidy is needed.
"Yes, the Scottish taxpayer has to stump up the cost, and that is a commitment we made.
"If we get the next contract right then hopefully we could also bring in more revenue on the service," he said.
Shetland Islands Council political leader Gary Robinson said he was disappointed with criticism made in response to the ferry fares freeze.
"I certainly never expected the commitment to reduce ferry fares to be delivered this year. I am sure it will be delivered, and it certainly hasn't been abandoned.
"The minister has gone on the record saying 'my job is on the line here, I said I would do this, it is a manifesto commitment, and it is going to happen'," Robinson said.
While in Shetland, the minister was also updated on the ongoing discussions between Transport Scotland and Shetland Islands Council on who is to bear the cost of providing inter island ferry services.
Not only are local ferry fares a huge burden on people living in the outer isles, the costs of providing and maintaining these services are also beyond the financial capabilities of the local authority.
Council leader Gary Robinson said discussions with the government were progressing to a stage where an announcement should be made within weeks.
Yousaf confirmed that an announcement – at least for a short term solution – would be made soon.
"I totally understand the frustrations of islanders because it has been talked about for a long time. It should be a matter of weeks before I can make some decision on this," he said.
Summing up his visit, he added: "Transport is just such a lifeline for people who live here and if we want to increase populations on the islands then they need transport, they need education, as well as employment and health care.
"These key messages came out very clear. The other message that has come from the people of Shetland is that people here are very, very innovative, very entrepreneurial, very creative in their thinking.
"We as a government have to continue the good collaboration that we have with the local council, but also talk to local communities about how we can assist them."