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Transport / ‘All options’ must be considered to alleviate freight ‘crisis’, industry group urges

NorthLink freight boat Hildasay.
The NorthLink cargo vessels could be replaced with new 'freight plus' vessel by the middle of the decade. Photo: Shetland News

THE SCOTTISH Government is offering “no relief” to the “crisis” of freight capacity on ferries to and from Shetland, the local seafood and haulage industries have claimed.

Shetland’s Stewart Building Transport Group responded to a letter from Scottish transport minister Graeme Dey, who also recently met industry representatives, to urge the government to act sooner than later.

It comes amid regular delays in goods being shipped from Lerwick at pinch points in the freight season – which comes at a big cost to the local economy.

In his letter the minister confirmed that any new vessels commissioned by the government will not be operational until 2026.

The government is looking at bringing in two new freight ships to replace the existing Helliar and Hildasay, with a ‘freighter plus’ model – which offers more passenger capacity – being considered.

The group said in response: “You should understand that Shetland and the business community here which relies on freight transport must have a solution to the crisis here and now rather than in five years.”

The minister also indicated that government agency Transport Scotland would be introducing a pilot scheme to encourage hauliers to make use of weekend sailing.

This initiative, which he described as “a solution to the current shortfall in freight capacity”, was seen by the group as having “little or no merit”.

It said customers would be resistant to taking deliveries over weekends, with producers and hauliers being forced to incur the costs of adjusting their operations to a seven-day week – this at a time when labour shortages and other pressures are well documented.

The group added that the minister’s central argument for the general lack of action rests on the statistic that all goods are shipped “across the week” – that all goods eventually get transported.

The group responded that while “shipping ‘across the week’ may satisfy some public sector servants and statisticians, it does nothing in the real commercial world where, as you ought to know, businesses survive by providing a reliable service to their customers”.

It stated that the “commercial pressures faced by hauliers – and in turn their customers – if trailers are not shipped when required are quite intolerable, with the knock-on result that precious trailers are not subsequently on station when and where they are required”.

It comes on the back of the Scottish Government’s announcement that it is investing £9 million in a ferry from Norway for the Craignure-Oban service.

Given that the minister stated in his letter that a broker is looking for a vessel to charter, the group has questioned this sole option – “particularly so, now that we are aware that you were already in the process of purchasing a second-hand ship to service the West Coast routes when you attended our meeting”.

It continued: “We would strongly urge that all options, including purchase, must be considered for the North Isles as well as the West Coast routes, given the dire circumstances we face.

“We ask of the government and of Transport Scotland that you listen to us, that you work with us, and that we are given the proper infrastructure such that we can continue to build the economy of Shetland, together with delivering significant input to the wider Scottish economy.”

A Transport Scotland spokesperson said in response: “The minister for transport recently met 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 [Caledonian Maritime Assets Limited] continues to look for opportunities for suitable second hand tonnage that could be added to the West Coast or Northern Isles fleets.”