THE COST of travelling to Aberdeen by ferry is to fall considerably after Scottish transport minister Humza Yousaf used a visit to Shetland to announce passenger fares will be cut by over 40 per cent and car fares will drop by more than 30 per cent on average.
The SNP government has been under pressure to take action in the Northern Isles for years after cutting west coast fares in half, and has now come up with a “variant” of the Road Equivalent Tariff (RET) scheme taking into account the greater distance between Lerwick and Aberdeen.
Yousaf’s long-awaited announcement sets out the government’s intention to introduce the scheme in the first half of 2018.
“It was a clear manifesto commitment and I’m very pleased we are now in a position to announce when that pledge will be delivered.”
A previous “two-tier” system where islanders received a discount is being abolished, but the government said it was committed to ensuring no fares will increase, with a new flat rate “capped at the season low islander rate or lower”.
However, while the foot passenger rate will fall by more than 40 per cent and car fares will come down by around a third, it does not appear that the price of overnight cabins for the 12-14 hour journey will be subject to a similar reduction.
While next year’s fares have yet to be set, the government gave an example based on 2017 fares whereby a trip between Aberdeen and Lerwick in peak season for two people and a vehicle will now cost around £110, instead of the current prices of £159.60 for islanders and £228.00 for non-islanders.
That could spell good news for tourism providers currently hamstrung by the steep cost of getting to Shetland for would-be visitors.
Yousaf said: “This reduction in fares will make ferry travel to and from the Northern Isles even more attractive for islanders and tourists. It also brings fares into line with those on the Clyde and Hebrides network, ensuring parity and supporting our aim of having one overarching fares policy across our ferry services.
“Detailed analysis is being carried out on the potential impact on demand and options to mitigate capacity issues will also be investigated, given the likely rise in passenger numbers.”
He added: “The Scottish Government is committed to supporting our island communities and this fares reduction scheme will ensure our lifeline ferry services remain affordable for people that depend on them, whilst also helping support the economy of the Northern Isles.”
The government explained that the RET formula applied to Clyde and Hebrides services consists of a fixed element and a variable element based on the distance of the journey.
For routes longer than 100 miles, a “variable element” has been introduced. Aberdeen-Kirkwall (151 miles), Aberdeen-Lerwick (218 miles) and Kirkwall-Lerwick (116 miles) all fall into that category.
The existing formula consists of a fixed element of £5 plus 80p per mile for cars and a fixed element of £2 plus 13p a mile for passengers. But the mileage-related elements will only be charged at 50 per cent of that rate for journeys between Shetland, Orkney and Aberdeen.
A government statement added that exact reductions for each route “will be confirmed in due course, as decisions on fares for 2018 have yet to be taken”.
Shetland Islands Council environment and transport committee chairman Ryan Thomson, who campaigned to bring fares down prior to becoming a councillor, described it as “a good start”.
He said that, while there was no mention of fares for buying cabins on board, he “sort of knew that from day one”.
“We do need a wee bit more clarity on what the flat rate will mean, but obviously we welcome the overall reduction,” he said. “I’m confident that the government will address any issues or imbalances that might appear when the new system is introduced, but overall it’s certainly a good start.”
Shetland MSP Tavish Scott also welcomed the announcement, having frequently criticised the government and run his own petition on the issue in recent years.
“Shetland deserves the same reduction in fares that the Scottish Government introduced on the west coast of Scotland,” the Liberal Democrat said.
“Islanders there have benefited from a 50 per cent reduction in fares for some time. So it is good news the Scottish Government have begun to address the ferry fares discrimination they imposed on the Northern Isles.
“I trust that once the detail is clear, Shetlanders and the islands economy will also benefit from a 50 per cent fare reduction. The SNP used to say that it wasn’t possible to reduce our ferry fares. Their change of heart is down to the islands refusing to accept no and I pay tribute to everyone across Shetland who has been involved in making that case.”
His Orkney counterpart Liam McArthur said that to Yousaf’s credit he “has always accepted the need to reverse the unfairness in the SNP government’s approach to ferry fares”.