News / Next ferry contract needs to be publicly owned, Thomson insists

Photo: Austin Taylor

A SENIOR councillor has called for lifeline transport services to come ‘in house’ and be operated by a government-owned company rather than being run by commercial businesses.

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

Councillor Ryan Thomson’s comments come after the NorthLink islander discount debacle in which the ferry operator removed the 20 per cent discount on meals and drinks without prior warning.

On Wednesday the chairman of the environment and transport committee, who also heads the Shetland transport partnership ZetTrans, was told by Serco NorthLink’s managing director Stuart Garrett that the decision stands and there was no case to review it.

Thomson said he wanted to see change in the way the service was set up and said he would initially seek a meeting with transport minister Graeme Dey in the hope of finding common ground and to “lay foundations for a publicly owned contract being implemented in 2026”.


“Giving a commercial business the reins of a lifeline service has always been a gamble, but [on Wednesday], brutally and bluntly, Shetlanders were told that profits go before islanders,” he said.

Serco NorthLink Ferries’ managing director Stuart Garrett.

“The fact said operator is heavily subsidised for providing the service appears irrelevant to Serco.

“A mistake has been made, and it’s a mistake that must never be repeated in future. This service must be publicly run, publicly operated to put people first. Never again must a private operator be given the reins of our lifeline service.”

The current six years northern isles lifeline ferry contract which came into force in summer last year is worth up to £345 million in government subsidies.

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Thomson said with local government elections next May and the festive period upon us there was little time for this council make inroads.

“This will, however, land during the course of the next council term, so depending on factors those elected during the next election term could, if they are that way inclined, hopefully continue the work,” he said.

It is known that there is some significant sympathy within the SNP/Green government towards publicly owned public transport services.

Government owned CalMac was a contender for the latest Northern Isles ferry contract.

Thomson also reiterated his views for board members serving on government-owned companies such as Highlands and Islands Airports Limited (HIAL) to be elected from the areas the organisations serve.

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