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Transport Scotland accused of ‘delaying tactics’ over north boats

NorthLink's passenger ferry Hrossey arriving in Lerwick. Photo: Austin taylor
Photo: Austin Taylor

A PROMISE to include “in-built flexibility” in the next Northern Isles ferry contract to amend services in response to changing demand has been called a “delaying tactic” by the chairman of Shetland’s transport partnership ZetTrans.

Ryan Thomson said that he feels government agency Transport Scotland is “hiding behind the word flexibility” – with changes to services needed now rather than down the line.

The councillor pointed to repeated concerns over the freight capacity on the Northern Isles services, as well as passenger space during the summer.

Members of ZetTrans met on Thursday in Lerwick where concern was expressed over a lack of definition of the term “flexibility”.

The £370 million contract, currently tendered by Transport Scotland, will run for eight years and it will come into force at the end of October.

Minister for energy, connectivity and the islands Paul Wheelhouse previously said that in-built flexibility will allow ferry services to be “amended to reflect future changes in demand across the important sectors of the islands’ economies”.

Speaking after the ZetTrans meeting, Thomson said there are “specific areas” in which Transport Scotland could make improvements to the service immediately for when the contract comes into play.

“I feel that hiding behind the word flexibility, or flexible, in terms of the contract going forward, is just a delaying tactic, kicking the can down the road,” he said.

“We have given Transport Scotland through the external transport forum a lot of information, all of which states categorically that the service is not fit for purpose, particularly at peak times, and all year round in terms of the freight service that we have at the moment – we’re at our peak here at the moment.

“In terms of going forward, we’re unsure what flexibility means – there are things that Transport Scotland could have implemented straight away and I hope that comes to fruition in the very, very early stages of the new contract and not later on.”

Councillor Davie Sandison told the meeting that he felt Transport Scotland “have all the aces in their hand” when it comes to the future of the ferry service – with Shetland just a “flea in the ear” from time to time.

VisitScotland’s Steve Mathieson added that Transport Scotland “can’t be woolly” over issues like flexibility.

He suggested that in the future if there was a month of full capacity on the boat then responses like day time sailings or a bigger ship could be triggered.

Mathieson warned that Shetland will not be able to grow its tourism industry if it keeps having to “bump heads” against the capacity issue.

ZetTrans’ lead officer Michael Craigie agreed to engage with Transport Scotland on the issue before the partnership’s next meeting.

He said there was “sufficient evidence” to show capacity restraints on the service.

Current operator Serco NorthLink, state owned Calmac and German shipping company FRS Group are all in the running for the new contract.

Transport Scotland also got it in the neck when it came to the roll-out of cheaper RET fares on the Northern Isles service.

Sandison asked if there was scope for further discussion to open up the scheme to cabins, saying reducing basic passenger foot fares was “not equitable”.

“It only favours those who take cars on the boat,” the councillor added.

A partial discount was applied on routes to and from Shetland last year as an initial measure, but legal action from Orkney’s Pentland Ferries has delayed the full roll-out across the Northern Isles.

Transport Scotland’s Northern Isles ferry service contract manager Paul Linhart-MacAskill told a meeting of Shetland’s external transport forum in March that reducing cabin fares remained a “longer term” focus for the government.

“I don’t think it hurts to give them a reminder,” Mathieson chimed in.

Thomson remarked that it was “barbaric to expect people to go an overnight journey without a bed”.

In response to the concerns from ZetTrans members, a spokesperson for Transport Scotland said: “We have undertaken extensive consultation with local communities and key stakeholders, including Shetland’s seafood industry and Shetland Islands Council, in the two years leading up to the tender being issued.

“This contract, worth around £370 million over an eight year period, underlines the Scottish Government’s continued commitment to the Northern Isles.

“It will ensure continuity of crucial ferry services for the communities and businesses that rely on them, allow us to explore opportunities to modify services in response to community needs, while providing value for money for the public purse.”