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News / Extra ferry sailings planned to deal with increased demand

THERE is likely to be additional ferry sailings to and from Shetland from next year to cope with increased demand once passenger fares are reduced.

That’s according to a new report on the country’s ferry services published by financial watchdog Audit Scotland on Thursday.

Scottish transport minister Humza Yousaf confirmed in August that passenger fares will be cut in 2018 by over 40 per cent on the publicly-funded Northern Isles service and car fares will drop by more than 30 per cent on average.

Following pressure to take action to make the NorthLink routes more equatable to the west coast where fares were halved, a “variant” of the road equivalent tariff was formulated.

But this is expected to “significantly increase demand” on the NorthLink ferries, which already suffer from a lack of cabin space during peak summer months.

Audit Scotland said Transport Scotland, which runs the service on behalf of the Scottish Government, is planning to cope with capacity concerns by “operating additional sailings using the current vessels on the network”.

“This is likely to require major timetable changes, which will have an impact on freight customers in particular. While making greater use of assets will save on the costs of new vessels, it will increase crewing, fuel and maintenance costs and harbour dues.”

Currently the two passenger ferries Hjaltland and Hrossey leave Aberdeen and Lerwick at 7pm, or 5pm/5.30pm if the ferry stops mid-way at Kirkwall, before arriving at their destination at 7am or 7.30am.

Chairman of Shetland Islands Council’s environment and transport committee Ryan Thomson, who campaigned for fairer ferry fares before being elected as a councillor this year, has previously suggested that daytime sailings could be an option.

It is thought that proposals for extra sailings could factor in potential shorter sailing times during calm weather in the summer by running an overnight journey to Lerwick, for example, before it sails back to Aberdeen during the day instead of waiting until the evening.

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The Scottish Government was criticised for not cutting the cost of cabins, with Yousaf admitting that they were not included as it would have exacerbated capacity issues.

“We’ll certainly look to explore that and how to increase capacity in the future, but we also don’t want to do something that would have the unintended consequence that islanders would lose out,” he said at the time.

But it’s not just passenger capacity that has caused concerns, with the issue of freight space raised during the last external transport forum in light of an anticipated increase in passenger vehicles.

Just weeks later Transport Scotland confirmed that it would be increasing freight fares on the NorthLink service by 2.9 per cent from 1 January after a freeze of two years.

A spokesman for Transport Scotland confirmed that it is currently looking into how to deal with the anticipated rise in passenger numbers.

“Detailed analysis is being carried out on the potential impact on demand of reducing fares on the Northern Isles ferry network,” he said.

“Options to mitigate capacity issues will also be investigated, given the likely rise in passenger numbers.

“The Scottish Government is committed to supporting our island communities and this fares reduction scheme will ensure our lifeline ferry services remain affordable for the people that depend on them, whilst also helping support the economy of the Northern Isles.”

Thomson said it is “essential” that capacity issues are taken into account, especially to allow Shetlanders to comfortably use the service.

“While the reduction in fares will help many, the impact this is forecast to have on increasing tourism, particularly during the summer months which is already bottlenecked, is significant and locals need to be able to use what is essentially primarily a lifeline service,” he said.

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