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Transport / ‘We need action’ – industry highlights freight ‘crisis’ ahead of meeting with minister

Some trailers were left behind at Lerwick harbour this week due to capacity constraints on the ferries.

THE “GROWING crisis” facing businesses looking to import and export their goods to and from Shetland will be raised with Scottish transport minister Graeme Dey during a meeting today (Wednesday).

It comes amid increased frustration over the freight capacity on the NorthLink ferries between Shetland and the Scottish mainland.

Seafood Shetland chief executive Ruth Henderson recently reiterated the call for an additional freight vessel on the route to Shetland, which currently has two cargo ships in addition to the passenger service.

Pinch points on the service have seen some goods both in and out of Shetland being held back – including 45 trailers “backed up” in the isles on Friday evening.

Dey will meet members of the Stewart Building transport group today in a virtual call.

Local hauliers, who reported freight restrictions throughout last week, have spoken out ahead of a meeting of the Shetland external transport forum this afternoon.

The meeting hears presentations from government agency Transport Scotland and ferry operator NorthLink, as well as Loganair.

Last week loaded trailers were delayed by anything from one to three days, which – particularly in the case of fresh produce – can put the viability of selling these products under severe threat.

Meanwhile trailers returning have had to wait up to four days or more.

All four local haulage companies – Northwards, DFDS, JBT and Streamline – have been affected in the first week of the revised livestock season sailing schedule.

One operator had 35 trailers delayed on their return to the mainland, one had 12 trailers delayed in getting back to Shetland to collect seafood exports and another had nine loaded trailers left behind on Monday and Tuesday.

Northwards director Neil Leslie said: “This is just a snapshot of the huge problem that hauliers and our customers face in shipping freight in and out of the islands.

“It is a problem that has been well communicated over many years to Transport Scotland and the Scottish government but which has brought absolutely nothing in the way of a solution.

“We are working closely and constructively with NorthLink. However, the lack of available space on the current service means that the ferry operator has constantly to prioritise and select what they can and cannot accommodate.

“The priority is for perishable goods and, at this time, livestock and returning livestock trailers. The rest must wait on the quayside, which is now not only a problem for us and our customers but is also a growing problem between hauliers and the harbour authorities.

“We have heard the argument that there is capacity on the Saturday/Sunday freight service, but this is simply not practical or affordable for hauliers, who would be forced to move to a seven-day week service when many customers do not operate or accept weekend deliveries.

“It is an argument, too, that ignores the perishable nature of many of the goods transported. Extending the delivery time for such goods over a weekend will clearly result in deterioration or worse of their quality and their value.”

Leslie also pointed to the issue of trailers being idle and inoperative while waiting for transport.

“If some 40 trailers are sitting in Lerwick, that is around £800k to £2.4 million of equipment – equipment in which the haulage companies have heavily invested – doing nothing,” he added.

“The harbour authorities understandably have issues about the trailers sitting on the pier and, in some cases, a substantial nightly fee is levied, which is another overhead that an inadequate service is generating.

“Freight is generating millions of pounds into the public purse, with Northwards alone spending over £2 million on the service to June this year. In return, we expect a service on which we can depend.

“This is an extremely serious threat to the economy of Shetland and to the many businesses whose existence relies on transportation.”

Leslie said that while the government is currently exploring new freight vessels, these will not be ready until 2026/27.

The Scottish Government previously chartered the MV Arrow as a third freight vessel to help with pinch points, but the boat has been used on the west coast.

“It is worth highlighting, too, that goods from Shetland contribute handsomely to the Scottish economy,” Leslie said.

“For example, the seafood industry alone is worth in excess of £350 million. So the current worsening situation is not having an impact solely on the Shetland economy but will also have a detrimental effect on Scotland as a whole.

“We have lobbied and pleaded with Transport Scotland and the government over many, many months and years to address this issue but with a depressing lack of success.

“The figures published today will hopefully bring home to the agency and the government exactly what is happening right now. We cannot let this situation continue. For Shetland and indeed for Scotland, we need action.”

A Transport Scotland spokesperson said: “The Minister for Transport was pleased to meet with the Stewart Building Group to hear from them directly on the challenges that industries are facing.

“Whilst acknowledging that the planned development of the two new freight vessels would address the issue in the longer term, the Minister also assured that work was underway to explore potential shorter term actions that could alleviate some pressures on the busiest sailings.

“The Minister was clear about the importance of supporting commercial freight traffic for the economic wellbeing of key rural industries and our island communities.

“He also reiterated that CMAL continues to look for opportunities for suitable second hand tonnage that could be added to the West Coast or Northern Isles fleets.”