ISLANDERS being priced out of a bed on the boat south has been described as “absolutely abhorrent” by a Shetland councillor.
Lerwick North member John Fraser told Thursday’s meeting of Shetland’s external transport forum that it was almost a “Darwinian selection process” when it comes to who can afford a comfortable sleep on the NorthLink ferry.
The issue of cabin fares was again hot topic at the forum after it was raised at the last meeting in March.
Transport Scotland’s head of ferries Graham Laidlaw acknowledged that cabin prices was an issue for islanders, but “reduced fares may present further capacity challenges, and this is something we will look at in the longer term”.
Basic ferry fares for passengers have been reduced thanks to the phasing in of road equivalent tariff (RET) on the NorthLink service, but cabins still remain the same price.
Fraser said Transport Scotland was restraining Shetlanders from travelling to the mainland on their lifeline ferry service due to the cost.
He claimed the government agency was failing to address the issue despite repeated concerns from islanders.
“Please stop kicking this proverbial can down the road,” the councillor implored.
Fraser added that “you are almost bringing a wall around the islands”.
His concerns were echoed by forum chairman councillor Ryan Thomson, who said it cost his family of five over £560 to travel with a car to Aberdeen and back on the boat in a cabin.
“From a ZetTrans point of view, and from a council point of view, I do know for a considerable amount of time now we have been highlighting the significant effect cabin costs have on islanders,” he said.
Thomson said people on lower incomes were being priced out of a bed on the boat, which the councillor believed was a necessity on an overnight journey – especially if you are driving the next day.
Laidlaw said reducing cabin fares was not a “manifesto commitment” as such, and highlighted that cutting the cost of berths will “exacerbate” existing capacity issues in the summer months.
It was added that Transport Scotland was advised against impacting on the Orkney market when RET starting being rolled out in the Northern Isles last year due to a legal challenge from private Orcadian firm Pentland Ferries.
Once the legal issues are out of the way then Transport Scotland can look more closely at cabin fares, the forum heard.
Shetland Islands Council’s transport manager Michael Craigie said he thought the capacity issue, however, was a “bit of a red herring”.
He said the service was already hitting the “ceiling” in many sailings. “If you decrease the cost at least those travelling will benefit,” Craigie added.
A number of extra sleeping pods, which operator NorthLink Ferries says are “extra comfortable seats which recline up to 70 degrees”, were recently installed on the north boats in an attempt to increase capacity as regulations prohibited more cabins.
But Thomson said they are “not a good or viable substitution for a bed on an overnight journey”.
NHS Shetland finance director Colin Marsland also revealed that as sleeping pods are not suitable for some people travelling for health appointments, some patient travel passengers have been unable to go south on their required date on the boat due to a lack of cabin space.
Shetland central councillor Ian Scott, a vocal critic of the ferry accommodation during the last forum meeting, said it was “disappointing” that the impending new Northern Isles ferry contract has not resulted in a reduction in cabin fares.
“I think we are being abused by the government and we are being short changed,” he said.
Scott said the sleeping pods were fine for youngsters after having a few beers, but they were not suitable for older folk.
“Whoever thought of those pods should really be ashamed of themselves,” he added.
There was further concern from Westside councillor Catherine Hughson, speaking in her role as executive officer of Voluntary Action Shetland, who believed Shetlanders were getting a worse deal on the ferries than Orcadians, who have easier access to the Scottish mainland.
Laidlaw stressed that the next Northern Isles ferry contact, which is due to come into force in late October, will have built-in flexibility to implement changes.
VisitScotland’s Steve Mathieson, meanwhile, commented that the only way Shetland’s recent tourism strategy will achieve its aim of increasing visitor spend by £10 million is through increasing the capacity of the boats.
Highlands and Islands Enterprise’s Rachel Hunter added that with the recently introduced Islands Act promoting island-proofing there was merit in an impact assessment being carried out.
The discussion was rounded off by Fraser, who challenged Laidlaw to invite the Scottish Government’s islands, transport and finance ministers up to Shetland – sleeping on a pod on the boat on their way up, of course – to speak to locals and give the thorny issue a “proper airing”.