DETAILS of the next contract for the Northern Isles lifeline ferry service have been published by Transport Scotland, but the procurement is facing a legal challenge from Orkney based Pentland Ferries.
Following a first scanning of the tender documents, local politicians have voiced disappointment that neither a dedicated freight service for Shetland nor regular 7pm sailings appear to form part of the specifications
In a statement issued on Thursday afternoon, the government agency confirmed that Förde Reederei Seetouristik GmbH & Co. KG (FRS) is the third bidder for the £370 million contract as revealed by Shetland News earlier this month.
The other two bidders for the eight year contract that is due to start on 31 October of this year are CalMac Ferries and the current operator Serco NorthLink.
Islands minister Paul Wheelhouse also confirmed that Pentland Ferries, a company that competes with Serco NorthLink on the Pentland First route, is seeking a judicial review of the government’s decision to subsidise a public transport service, and has also lodged a complaint to the European Commission.
The minister said that the procurement process would continue as planned, pending the outcome of the judicial review and complaint to the EC.
The contract specifications, published on the Transport Scotland website, promote the current timetables and stipulates that the ports of Lerwick, Kirkwall, Stromness, Scrabster and Aberdeen will have to be used to run the service.
The future operator can propose changes to the timetable for 2020 but these will have to be approved by Transport Scotland.
Relatively little detail is given in relation to time-sensitive freight, such as seafood exports but also supermarket movements, other than saying that perishable goods will have to go on the passenger ferry service and that the operator “must ensure than a minimum of 18 slots are available”.
The operator will also have to hold regular consultation meetings with industry and user groups, as is currently the case.
The existing vessels will be made available to the winning bidder unless the incoming company wants to use their own vessels, which have to be at least of the same standard to be acceptable to Transport Scotland.
Wheelhouse said the tendering documents outline the in-built flexibility of the contract, “allowing the services to be amended to reflect future changes in demand across the important sectors of the islands’ economies”.
He added: “Scottish Ministers will retain control of all of important issues, such as fares, timetables and routes to be served, through the public service contract. The services are being tendered as a single bundle.”
Chairman of ZetTrans, the Shetland Transport Partnership, councillor Ryan Thomson said changes to the current set-up were required now and needed to be made urgently.
“Now that the tender documents have been released we look forward to continuing discussions with Transport Scotland and identifying precisely what they mean by the term flexibility,” Thomson said.
“We won’t be waiting to have discussions around changes in the contract until after it’s been awarded, I feel there are changes which could be made immediately, in particular, the work around 7pm sailings seven days a week, a dedicated freight service to cope with current demand and the expected increase in demand, and the issues around cabin prices and utilisation.”
“The documents have only just landed on the desk so I look forward to studying in more detail to make sure the new service meets the needs of the Shetland public and businesses.”
Shetland MSP Tavish Scott added: “I cannot see much that is different in this contract for our lifeline services. But the government do appear to have widened out the definition of time sensitive freight. That could lead to real issues for the shipping operator.
“Seafood exports – £300 million of whitefish, mussels and salmon – need to make the boat in Lerwick every night. We cannot have this freight bumped. That is why the industry provided detailed forward projections on freight tonnage for future years.
“If that need for greater capacity has not been included in the contract, I cannot see what the government’s consultation has achieved. I will be raising this with ministers.”
In relation to the legal challenge Wheelhouse added: “There is a limit to what I can say at this juncture, out of respect for the judicial review process, other than to say that we will robustly defend our position in relation to the continued provision of subsidy in support of these lifeline ferry services.”