AT LEAST five companies are interested in running the northern isles lifeline ferry service from next July.
Current operator NorthLink Ferries, freight business Streamline, Norwegian company Sea Cargo, which holds a 62.5 per cent share in local haulier Northwards, and international service company Serco, have all confirmed that they have registered an interest in the six year contract.
Meanwhile, Pentland Ferries chief executive Andrew Banks, who operates the Pentalina between St Margaret’s Hope and Gill’s Bay, has also expressed a possible interest in the Stromness – Scrabster route.
The northern isles ferry service is subsidised to the tune of almost £40 million per annum.
Ten days ago Transport Scotland announced that they were to advertise the long awaited tendering process in the Official Journal of the European Union.
At present the only details known about the contract are that there will be no changes to the ports used, that the crossing time from Stromness to Scrabster should not be more than 90 minutes, and that the three vessels currently serving the route will continue to do so.
As a first step in the tendering process the government has now issued a PQQ (pre-qualification questionnaire), which interested parties are required to fill in by 31 October.
The government will then choose which applicants have the technical and economic capacity to enter into a three month procurement process known as “competitive dialogue”.
At this point the Scottish government and the companies involved will explore any new ideas for running the Pentland Firth and North Sea routes.
At the end of January 2012 ministers will invite remaining companies to submit a final detailed tender by the second week in February.
A preferred bidder is scheduled to be announced in March, who will then enter into negotiation for the contract handover in the summer.
Despite nervousness about the tight timescale, the SNP government has repeated many times in the past few weeks that they are confident a new contract will be in place by 1 July.
A spokesman for state-owned NorthLink, part of the Calmac Group, said they intended to bid to retain the contract.
“NorthLink Ferries is focused entirely on continuing to provide a first-class lifeline ferry service to the northern isles as we have been doing since 2002,” he said.
“The company has overseen a significant increase in traffic and passenger numbers on all routes during its nine year tenure. For example on the Aberdeen to Lerwick route last year we exceeded 100 per cent growth in only eight years.”
Development director with Streamline Shipping Gareth Crichton, a former commercial director with NorthLink, said they would combine their current cargo service with the passenger and freight contract to save money for passengers and the government.
“We believe we can bring forward savings by integrating our traffic, we also think that we can operate more commercially,” Mr Crichton said.
“We know very well what the Shetland community wants from the service in terms of bed space and availability, in terms of sea time and of price. We think we have some good ideas of how we can make the service more attractive.”
Meanwhile managing director of Bergen-based freight specialist Sea Cargo, Ole Saevild, confirmed that the company had also put their name forward.
“We have done this because we are interested in the service, but we have to wait for more detail,” Herr Saevild said.
A spokeswoman for Serco also confirmed that the multinational, which manages Scatsta airport as well as operating ferry services for the Royal Navy at Faslane, was interested in the providing the service.
She said: “We can confirm that Serco is involved in the initial tender process to operate the northern isles ferry service.”
Andrew Banks of Pentland Ferries was not available for comment on Tuesday, but has previously told BBC Radio Orkney that he was still interested in looking at least at the Pentland Firth part of the contract.