SHETLAND Islands Council had to shell out £450,000 on emergency repairs to its ferry MV Geira in order to prevent the Bluemull Sound route being left with only one vessel for a “considerable amount of time”.
The environment and transport committee heard on Tuesday that, when the 28-year-old ferry was undergoing its annual refit at the Malakoff, problems emerged that required immediate action.
The situation highlights why so many councillors have for years been advocating a move to fixed link tunnels and bridges instead of buying expensive replacement ferries that are more costly to run and maintain.
It also shows why the SIC is so eager for the Scottish Government to take over responsibility for the hefty capital cost of keeping outlying islands connected.
Elected members heard from the local authority’s new executive manager for ferries Craig Robertson that the Geira’s latest problem had been an “entirely unforeseeable event”.
During the 2015/16 refit at Malakoff’s Lerwick slipway, the Geira’s rubber belting fenders were removed to allow grit blasting of the steel plating.
When the grit blasting was completed, a “significant amount of pitting and weaknesses” were identified in the steel plates.
Further examination identified significant degradation of the plates and it was clear repairs had to be carried out before returning the Geira to service. The ferry operates a “roll on, roll off” vehicle and passenger service between Yell, Unst and Fetlar.
There is a provision within the council’s standing orders for such repairs to be carried out without putting the work out to tender.
Marine engineer Lee Coutts’ report stated: “This was an entirely unforeseeable event and it was decided that the works required to be carried out as an emergency to minimise disruption to the service.”
Coutts’ report said it was unclear why the steel plates had become so badly degraded. Possible causes include “sea water ingress through the protective paint coating or rubber belting rubbing and causing wear of the protective coating”.
More frequent inspections of the Geira – built in Yorkshire back in 1988 – will take place in the future to minimise the chances of a repeat.
The estimated cost of £450,000 will be found from savings and underspends within the council’s infrastructure budget.
Specifically, it will come from funds earmarked for bridge bearings for the Trondra and Burra bridges, waste management recycling, and a “life extension” for the ferry Fivla.
North Isles councillor Robert Henderson said it “worries me greatly to see this happening on this occasion, and to see emails being bandied about that there’s been no contact made with the Scottish Government about fixed links”.
But when he asked what the latest position was on getting more information about tunnels and bridges, Henderson was told it was “not a conversation we can have” due to the pre-Scottish election “purdah” period that restricts what council officials can say on political issues.
Committee vice chairman Steven Coutts thanked the staff for taking quick action to minimise disruption to the vital ferry service.
The Geira is not the only council ferry to have been in the wars lately. Councillors also heard that over £30,000 of repairs had to be carried out to Whalsay ferry the Linga, which normally operates on the Symbister-Laxo route.
It suffered problems following the failure of an emergency generator on 2 January, resulting in damage that required an engine replacement.
Again work was commissioned immediately to minimise disruption, but a specialist engineer was required to investigate a converter problem.
L&M Engineering supplied and fitted the new engine at a cost of £12,556, while an ABB engineer completed repairs at an estimated cost of £18,270.
The work was authorised by SIC infrastructure director Maggie Sandison.
Councillor Jonathan Wills said it seemed the Linga had “more than her fair share of breakdowns”.
Robertson said the problem with “quite a lot of vessels” on the SIC’s inter-island services was age.
While its maintenance programme ensured that safety standards continue to be met, it was costing more and more to keep such ferries in service.
Henderson asked if the Scottish Government had said anything more about taking responsibility for ferries – a subject addressed by First Minister Nicola Sturgeon on her visit to Shetland last week – but committee chairman Michael Stout said that could not be discussed during the pre-election period either.
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