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Transport / No guarantee new ferry contract will be in place by end of October

Photo: Austin TaylorPhoto: Austin Taylor

THERE is no firm guarantee that the next Northern Isles ferry contract will be in place before the 31 October target, according to a Transport Scotland official.

Northern Isles Ferry Service contract manager Paul Linhart-MacAskill gave the update to members of Shetland’s external transport forum on Wednesday.

The awarding of the £370 million, eight year contract – currently held by Serco NorthLink – has been delayed due to a legal complaint by private Orkney operator Pentland Ferries to the European Commission over the subsidies due to be included.

The contract was due to be awarded to either Serco or Calmac in August, in the view of service changing hands on 31 October, but there has been no movement yet.

Linhart-MacAskill said on Wednesday that “arrangements for the award of the next contract will be announced shortly”.

But when questioned by forum chairman Ryan Thomson, the Transport Scotland man admitted he could not “commit with 100 per cent certainty” that the contract will be in place by 31 October.

“Obviously there are a number of variances which are going on behind the scenes,” he said.

“The Scottish Government is robustly trying to move things forward.”

Linhart-MacAskill also admitted that the delay is causing “some frustration” to not only the community and industries, but to staff and crew too.

He said one option, if it looked like things were going to run beyond 31 October, would be to ask Serco NorthLink about temporarily extending its current contract.

There was also a reiteration that Transport Scotland is looking at lowering cabin fares, an issue regularly raised at external transport meetings, while capacity is also on its radar.

“There’s a bit of work being done specifically on these points,” Linhart-MacAskill said.

The number of passengers using the ferry on the Lerwick-Aberdeen-Lerwick route from January to August, meanwhile, increased by nearly 10,000 on the previous year.

Figures presented by NorthLink Ferries managing director Stuart Garrett showed that 93,162 passengers used the service over the period in 2019, compared to 83,448 in 2018.

Cabin sales have grown by 4.9 per cent in the year to date, while that figures for sleeping pods is 61.9 per cent.

Garrett said the rise in the sale of pods – to 12,582 in the year to date – is attributed to extra pods being installed.

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