Roll-out of cheaper ferry fares begins

Hrossey - Photo: Mark Berry

CHEAPER ferry fares will be introduced by the Scottish Government on routes to and from Shetland from Saturday (30 June) – but Orkney is set to miss out for now.

An initial discount of around 20 per cent for passengers and cars will be applied on the Aberdeen-Lerwick-Aberdeen and Kirkwall-Lerwick-Kirkwall routes on all fares as a “first step”, meaning that it will come on top of the existing 30 per cent islander discount.

Road equivalent tariff (RET) variant fares will not be in place on routes between Orkney and mainland Scotland within the promised deadline of the first half of 2018 due to ongoing discussions with commercial operator Pentland Ferries, which runs a service between South Ronaldsay and Caithness.

Friday’s development means that Shetland locals should be set to enjoy a price cut near to the full anticipated RET reduction, although it appears visitors will have to wait for the full whack.

This is due to the ongoing talks with Pentland Ferries, with possible legal issues if the full reduction was introduced on Shetland routes just now.

It is understood that the final reduction will be 50 per cent of the current peak season prices for everyone.

All existing discounts, including islander, friends and family and concessionary rates, are being retained as part of the interm reduction. Transport Scotland has confirmed that bookings already made for travel after the first half of 2018 will be reimbursed.

NorthLink Ferries said that passengers with advance bookings for travel on or after 30 June will automatically be given credit via a cheque in the post, although international customers will be contacted by telephone.

Chairman of Shetland Islands Council Ryan Thomson welcomed the news and said it will mean an “almost full implementation of RET for Shetland residents which will significantly reduce the fare and car fare”.

“This is certainly good news and we anticipate further information in due course as to how and when travellers can expect their refund on their previously booked tickets,” he added.

Shetland MSP Tavish Scott said that the government “must now go further to ensure that essential cabin fares will also be subject to reduced fares given that few passengers will travel without a cabin on the 12-hour journey to Aberdeen”.

There had been repeated concern expressed over the lack of clarity on the government’s plans to introduce cheaper fares on the Northern Isles routes after previous transport minister Humza Yousaf promised that RET would be in place in the the first half of the year.

New transport secretary Michael Matheson, who took up his post earlier this week, said: “As I begin my new role as transport secretary, I want to ensure that I gain a full understanding of the detail.

“It is already very clear to me that planning to introduce reduced fares on the Northern Isles network has been a complex and challenging piece of work,” he said.

“As a first step, we will cut fares on the Aberdeen-Lerwick and Kirkwall-Lerwick services from 30 June. These reductions will be around 20 per cent for both passengers and cars.

“On routes to Orkney, it has been necessary to engage with commercial operators on the Pentland Firth. We set out a very fair and reasonable proposal that would maintain competition, enabling them to protect their existing market share.

“Unfortunately, not all the commercial operators have felt able to agree to our proposals. This means we cannot currently implement reduced fares on any of the routes to and from Orkney without the risk of legal challenge.

“This is both disappointing and frustrating, but I am determined to work through the issue to see what more can be done. I have asked Transport Scotland to undertake some further work to see what measures, if any, we can take. As part of that, we are willing to reopen talks with commercial operators.

“I will provide a further update to stakeholders and to parliament as soon as I can, with a view to bringing the full benefits of the scheme to the people of Orkney and Shetland.”

Orkney MSP Liam McArthur said the news will be met with “utter dismay” in his isles and called on the government to backdate the fare reductions to 30 June once they are implemented.

Scottish Parliament election, 6 May 2021