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Transport / ‘Significant challenges’ remain on ferries as new Northern Isles contract kicks in

NorthLink's passenger ferry Hrossey arriving in Lerwick. Photo: Austin taylorOne of NorthLink's passenger ferries arriving at Lerwick harbour. Photo: Austin Taylor

THE NEW Northern Isles ferry contract formally kicked in on Tuesday – but “significant challenges” remain on the service for both passengers and freight customers, according to a local councillor.

Serco NorthLink Ferries’ new contract is due to run until 30 June 2026, with the option of a further two years.

It has run the lifeline service, which connects Shetland and Orkney with Aberdeen, on behalf of the Scottish Government since 2012.

Chairman of local transport partnership ZetTrans councillor Ryan Thomson, however, said there still remain challenges for islanders when it comes to the north boats.

Government agency Transport Scotland, which awarded the contract to Serco NorthLink, said the new contract will include flexibility to “allow timetabled freight and ferry services to be amended to better reflect changes in future demand”.

North Isles councillor Ryan Thomson. Photo: Shetland NewsChairman of the SIC’s transport and environment committee, councillor Ryan Thomson. Photo: Shetland News

Thomson – who also chairs Shetland’s external transport forum – said some changes could be made immediately, like increasing freight capacity in peak times, especially for in-demand sectors like the seafood industry.

This could, he said, in turn provide a boost to the local and national economy as the country moves out of lockdown.

“The SIC and ZetTrans both welcomed the three year fare freeze and the additional 20 per cent reduction on cabin fares, but there remains some significant challenges for travellers and on freight capacity,” Thomson said.

“We now must make sure we continue to work constructively with Transport Scotland and the Scottish Government to make sure they fully understand the issues and challenges we face here in Shetland and to make sure our community and our economy benefits from the new contract.

“There are things which could be implemented immediately, such as a dedicated freight service, in particular for time-sensitive freight, including seafood exports which could help stimulate both the Shetland and Scottish economies as we enter the next phase of the Scottish Government’s route map out of lockdown.”

Speaking when Serco NorthLink was announced as the preferred bidder for the contract last year, islands minister Paul Wheelhouse said the government was “acutely aware” of seasonal and time-sensitive challenges of key industries.

“It is important to remember that Scottish ministers will retain control of all of the key issues, such as fares and timetables through the public service contract, and I look forward to continuing to build on our strong working relationship with Serco NorthLink Ferries in the months and years ahead,” he added.

Chief executive of Seafood Shetland Ruth Henderson meanwhile said the industry body was pleased that the new contract has started.

Seafood Shetland chief executive Ruth Henderson. Photo: Shetland NewsSeafood Shetland chief executive Ruth Henderson. Photo: Shetland News

The organisation has previously pressed Transport Scotland on the need for greater freight capacity between Shetland and Aberdeen, with over £2 million worth of fresh fish left behind on Lerwick’s quayside on a day in 2018 because there wasn’t enough space on the ferries.

“We look forward to receiving the same level of service that we have already enjoyed from Serco NorthLink,” Henderson said.

“Going forward, we continue to look to Transport Scotland to work with the operator to ensure that the freight service evolves to meet the growing need of the sector, which is, of course, central to the entire operation.”

The ferries between Aberdeen, Kirkwall and Lerwick have been running to their usual timetable since 22 June following a restricted service during lockdown.

Serco NorthLink managing director Stuart Garrett confirmed that the company expects services between Scrabster and Stromness to resume their full timetable in mid-July when the tourism industry starts to open up again as part of the easing from lockdown.

“While services are increasing, the capacity on board remains reduced in line with physical distancing restrictions and demand is being carefully managed,” he said.

“As per the guidance from the Scottish Government, journeys on NorthLink Ferries are currently restricted to those categories outlined in Phase 2 of the Scottish Government’s Route Map out of the Covid-19 crisis. This includes key workers and those visiting family and friends.

“It is important that you only travel if you can do so while adhering to the wider government guidelines, with face coverings worn where required. We have carried out robust risk assessments and have published advice on how to travel safely with NorthLink Ferries on our website.”