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Survey shows rise in group ferry fares

COMPLAINTS about discounts for groups travelling on NorthLink ferries will be raised with the Scottish government this week when it visits Shetland, after a survey revealed a “substantial” rise in costs.

The Shetland Islands Council survey showed that some groups are facing more than 40 per cent increases in the price of reaching the mainland to take part in events.

The lack of flexibility also means that many groups simply can not apply for a discount because they are unable to plan six months ahead as the new system requires.

SIC transport committee chairman Allan Wishart said he would be raising the matter with Scottish transport minister Keith Brown during this week’s Cabinet visit to the isles.

He said this would need to be followed up with both Serco and Transport Scotland.

SIC transport chairman Allan Wishart

“The Scottish government is trying to raise levels of participation in sport ahead of the Commonwealth Games, while this is making it more difficult for Shetlanders to participate outside the islands,” Wishart said.

“While Serco is a commercial operator and have to make whatever they make, ultimately this is subject to a £243 million government grant over six years so it does come back to public funding.”

Before Serco took over the service sport, community and school groups received a 30 per cent discount on the cost of their fare, accommodation and vehicles based on the low season rate.

Serco scrapped that system and introduced a 50 per cent discount on fares only, based on the seasonal rate when groups travelled.

They also made groups apply six months in advance of their travel, giving them two annual slots in which to submit their application.

The survey received 25 responses from 14 sporting groups, eight school groups and three community groups, representing a total of round 300 members.

While one quarter said their costs had stayed the same, one third said they had risen by more than 30 per cent.

As for future costs, every group said their costs were going to increase with one quarter saying they were going up by more than 40 per cent.

Wishart said the picture was complicated by the time of year groups travelled and whether they needed cabins or to take a vehicle.

“What is clear is that there is definitely an increase across the board, and a substantial increase if you get a group travelling a number of times a year, and that can inhibit their involvement with like groups on the mainland,” he said.

“I was told that the old NorthLink system was abused by some people forming themselves into groups to go away for events when they were not really groups.

“Now I think the pendulum has swung too far the other way, and there needs to be more flexibility.”

Wishart said that he had taken a cautious approach to this issue until he had hard evidence on which to base any arguments.