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Consultant: lower fares for islanders too costly

The ferry terminal at Toft, the gateway from the Shetland mainland to Yell, Unst and Fetlar.
The ferry terminal at Toft, the gateway from the Shetland mainland to Yell, Unst and Fetlar.

INTRODUCING lower ferry fares for those living in Shetland’s outlying islands would be too expensive at present, a new economic study has concluded.

A review was commissioned by Shetland Islands Council members last October to examine ways of developing a new fare structure to help those commuting regularly to and from islands such as Unst, Yell, Fetlar and Whalsay.

The key finding of the £17,000 report from Inverness-based consultancy firm Reference was that, in order to halve fares for island residents and commuters, “a compensating increase of at least 80% or more to Shetland residents and visitors” would be required to maintain the local authority’s overall fare income.

Such a sharp rise in fares would have “unpredictable” consequences but would carry “a high risk of significant reductions in travel”. If tourists and other Shetland residents were discouraged from travelling by ferry it could also cause economic damage to islands like Unst and Fetlar.

As a result, the review concluded that it is “not possible to introduce any meaningful fare reductions for commuters and island residents”.

Monday afternoon’s environment and transport committee meeting heard that fare income in 2014/15, at £1.82 million, was £179,000 short of the budget target.

Environment and transport committee chairman Michael Stout: "This is not something we can sit comfortably with".

This year’s budget is predicated on fare income of £2.16 million and steps have been taken to tighten up the collection of fares. something which “should address the shortfall”, according to a report from SIC official Michael Craigie stated.

Moves are also afoot to create a “smart and integrated ticketing capability” on buses and ferries.

Committee chairman Michael Stout said the review had been useful in providing evidence to Transport Scotland as the council argues for greater government funding towards the cost of running ferry services.

Vice chairman Steven Coutts said the report “unfortunately doesn’t make good reading in terms of the aspirations of communities”. 

Last year the local authority received £6.5 million from Holyrood to run its inter-island ferries but spent twice that. Even after fare income was taken into account, the council was left covering a shortfall of some £4.5 million.

“To be blunt, why we have so little leeway is that we are effectively underfunded,” Stout said.

While he is frustrated that talks with Scottish officials have taken so long, Stout said indications were that “conversations are very constructive”.

“I fully accept and endorse that it’s a slow, frustrating process. It’s grinding too slow for people who are struggling, particularly those who are in transport poverty – this is not something we can sit comfortably with.”

Members endorsed Craigie’s report, which recommends reducing the fare for a standard vehicle journey to Fair Isle or Foula from £25.30 return to £6.80 return, bringing prices in line with those for Skerries and Papa Stour.

Likewise the fare for commercial vehicles will fall from £100 each way to £13.80 on the same routes.

Meanwhile, a multi-journey ticket for motorbikes of £67.80 for 10 return journeys has also been recommended.