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Transport Scotland says plans on schedule amid fears over timescale for cheaper fares

NorthLink passenger ferry MV Hrossey.

TRANSPORT Scotland has insisted that the roll-out of cheaper ferry fares for the Northern Isles will still take place in the first half of 2018 after concerns were raised at the Scottish Parliament over the impact the lack of clarity is having on the tourism industry.

Orkney MSP Liam McArthur said at First Minister’s Questions on Thursday that the absence of a specific start date for the Road Equivalent Tariff (RET) variant scheme was worrying.

Nicola Sturgeon said in response that she would ask transport minister Humza Yousaf to give McArthur an update on the timetable of the roll-out.

A Transport Scotland spokesman confirmed the new ferry fares are still on course to be introduced in the first half of the year.

Last month TS official Graham Laidlaw told Shetland’s external transport forum a model was “now substantially complete”, but some work was still needed to overcome potential state aid implications when applying the model to the commercially-run Pentland Ferries.

Chairman of local transport partnership ZetTrans and Shetland Islands Council’s transport committee Ryan Thomson said it was “essential” for a timeframe to be confirmed soon.

The RET variant was announced by Yousaf back in August, with a flat rate “capped at the season low islander rate or lower” set to be introduced which should significantly reduce visitor fares.

The government said a trip between Aberdeen and Lerwick in peak season for two people and a vehicle would cost around £110, instead of the current prices of £159.60 for islanders and £228 for non-islanders – although concerns were raised that cabins were not factored into the scheme.

At the Scottish Parliament on Thursday, McArthur called on a start date to be confirmed before MSPs return from their Easter break in mid-April.

“As we approach Easter weekend, there is still no sign of cheaper fares being introduced and more worryingly still there is still no sign of a formal start date,” he said.

He asked Sturgeon to accept that “this ongoing lack of clarity is unhelpful, particularly for the islands tourism sector which relies heavily on advanced bookings over the summer period.”

The decision to introduce cheaper fares in the Northern Isles was a long time coming, as the RET model – which bases ferry fares on the cost of travelling the equivalent distance by road- was introduced on the west coast a number of years ago.

Thomson said he understood the frustration over the lack of details concerning the timeframe, but he added there was “a lot of work going on behind the scenes”.

“We had assurances last week at the ZetTrans islands transport forum from Transport Scotland, who have again reiterated their intention on having this introduced in the first half of this year on our lifeline route,” he said.

“I understand there are frustrations in the community and share these frustrations, from businesses and those holding off booking travel arrangements. Given we are nearly in April, a timeframe is essential.

“I am fully aware there is a lot of work going on behind the scenes to make sure this is implemented in the first half of this calendar year, and although frustrating, I fully expect that to be the case.

“Businesses, and those travelling to and from our isles need clarity and certainty when RET is being implemented, however, and I trust this will be announced as soon as possible.”

Speaking after First Minister’s Questions, McArthur added that there is a “growing concern” over people holding off on making bookings.

“That is why I pressed the first minister today to ensure that a formal start date for the reduced fares is confirmed before parliament returns after the Easter recess,” he said.

“Unfortunately, Nicola Sturgeon refused to give such an undertaking, claiming that this was work in progress for the transport minister.

“This simply is not good enough. Local businesses, individuals and indeed potential visitors to our islands need clarity. They also need to see these cheaper fares, promised for so long, finally introduced.”