THE NEXT North Boats contract could see ferries departing at 7pm every night and making a reduced number of stops in Orkney to provide greater capacity on vessels for travel to and from Shetland.
A new Transport Scotland “STAG” study, which has been four years in the making, was published on Thursday and will be pored over by local politicians and officials in the days to come.
Shetland Islands Council transport committee chairman Ryan Thomson said the STAG report was “welcomed, but there remains plenty of unanswered questions regarding the longer term structure and security” of the service.
Its publication comes in a week when the Scottish Government announced a deal to buy the RBS-owned passenger ferries operating on the route, and an 18-month extension of current operator Serco NorthLink’s contract until autumn 2019 was confirmed.
The report states the “underlying assumption is that the current vessels will remain in place for the foreseeable future”, though larger vessels “will be considered further in the medium term”.
Replacing Aberdeen with Peterhead as the mainland port of call has been dismissed on the grounds that any benefits would be “outweighed by disruption and inconvenience”, while developments at Aberdeen South harbour could also provide berths for larger vessels in the future.
Reducing the number of calls at Kirkwall is to be considered further when drawing up tender documents for the new contract in light of fare reductions on the Pentland Firth and potential expansion of the Scrabster-Stromness timetable.
Having all sailings depart Aberdeen and Lerwick at 7pm – every other sailing currently departs at 5pm – would address “a long-held issue” for Shetland. That move would receive a warm response from exporters, principally the seafood industry.
While “some operational issues have been identified with retaining the 1900 departure time, there would be merit in exploring whether the current time by which departures are brought forward could be reduced”, the report states.
Various options for daytime sailings between Aberdeen, Shetland and Orkney have been considered but dismissed due to “major and potentially insurmountable barriers” in relation to crewing, vessel maintenance and other issues.
Even if those barriers were overcome the “costs would be high, given the requirements to run the vessels faster than at present, and the lack of contingency time in the resulting timetable would impact on the punctuality of the overnight services in poor weather”.
The report concludes that fare reductions are “likely to lead to significant problems of unmet demand on the North Sea routes”.
With Orkney residents and visitors already enjoying additional ferry travel options, consideration is to be given to a form of booking prioritisation or quota system for those travelling to and from Shetland. That could be specific to cabins and could prioritise those travelling from both islands with children.
While larger ships do not appear to be on the horizon any time soon, several options to improve sleeping capacity on board the existing vessels are under consideration.
The STAG report suggests the tender specification for the next contract could “state an objective to provide additional capacity – and leave it to bidders to come forward with innovative proposals”.
Ideas floated at this stage include inserting an additional sleeping block on the Hjaltland and Hrossey, converting the cinema into a dormitory with couchettes, converting all two-berth cabins into four-berths, creating a small number of larger family cabins, and further developing sleeping pods to allow them to fully recline.
Freight capacity could be improved looking at “all of the resources and assets available throughout the supported ferry service network in Scotland”
Scottish transport minister Humza Yousaf is due in Shetland on Friday, though it is understood there will be no announcement on the imminent introduction of new fares under the existing contract.
Thomson said concerns remained over the capacity of the vessels – especially after they were taken into government ownership.
“The STAG report as well as the Audit Scotland report, which was published last year, was quite clear in the fact that it said that we were at capacity, and capacity issues with the implementation of RET are only going to get worse,” Thomson said.
“If we’re going to be working with these two vessels for the short and medium term now, that issue still needs to be addressed, and that limits now how we can move forward with that, so we need to work an additional vessel or additional sailings.
“Something needs to happen, and something needs to give. We expect that to be looked at in the very near future.”
Thomson added that 7pm sailings would “assist business users no doubt” but that would “not get away from the fact we are at full capacity and additional capacity is required to help not just grow business here in Shetland, but sustain what we have”.
The councillor, who is also chairman of transport body ZetTrans, said there were some parts of the report which he would challenge – including an outdated mention that there are competing airlines in Shetland.
“This is significant as we cannot overlook the consequences of reduced flights and seats on the air services and probable higher air fares,” he said.
Thomson also noted that references to freight capacity used data compiled prior to Streamline withdrawing its own cargo service on the route from Shetland to the Scottish mainland in favour of using the NorthLink boats.