Transport / Ferries should not be added to free bus travel scheme, impact assessment concludes

The Yell ferry Daggri.

AN ISLANDS impact assessment on Scottish Government plans to provide free bus travel to under 22s has concluded that the scheme should not be extended to ferries – despite being told by a local transport official that this would be “discriminatory” and at odds with its own policy.

A Transport Scotland spokesperson, however, said the issue of discounts and concessionary schemes will form part of a “fair fares” review.


Shetland MSP Beatrice Wishart said she was “very disappointed” that the free bus travel scheme has not been extended to ferries.

The free bus travel scheme, a key policy of the Greens when they joined the partnership government earlier this year, will kick off from 31 January 2022, meaning anyone under the age of 22 in Scotland will be able to grab a bus at no cost.

But the exclusion of ferries came under fire from politicians who said islanders travelling by sea on a lifeline service is effectively a bus.


Critics used the example of how someone under 22 could in theory travel by bus for free between John O Groats and Berwick-upon-Tweed, but local folk’s free bus travel would be limited to the Shetland mainland.

Shetland Islands Council’s transport strategy officer Elaine Park said a failure to extend the scheme to ferries would be “fundamentally at odds” with the aims of the Scottish Government’s own Islands Act and National Islands Plan.

Park was writing on behalf of Shetland Islands Council and local transport partnership ZetTrans in response to a consultation undertaken by the government on the impact the free bus travel scheme could have on island communities.

Buses in Shetland will soon be fitted with a new smart ticketing system. Photo: Shetland News

She said in the consultation response that a ferry acts as a “bus service to join together two points in the road network”.

“Subsequent inclusion of ferry fares in the scheme would mitigate the disadvantage experienced by any young islander when making their journey,” Park wrote.

But the pleas around adding ferry travel – both for inter-island and Northern Isles routes – as well as flights, has not changed the government’s thinking.

It has now concluded an islands impact assessment on the free bus travel plans and the report said it would not be appropriate to include ferry travel.

“The Scottish Government recognises that ferry and air travel are island specific issues, but does not agree that ferry or air travel should be included in the Young Persons Free Bus Scheme, which applies to bus travel only, and which has encouraging sustainable transport use at its heart,” the assessment said.

“It is also important to note the ways in which funding of bus, air and ferry travel differ and that this has implications in considering whether they should form part of the free bus travel scheme.”

It added that the “great majority of ferry services are in public hands and paid for by the public purse and would not readily fit into the current concessionary travel scheme or the new Young Persons Scheme”.

The NorthLink ferry terminal in Lerwick. Chris Cope/Shetland News

It also noted the cost to the government of extending the scheme to ferries. Adding inter-island ferry travel could cost between £280,000 and £330,000 a year, and expanding the scheme to NorthLink and Clyde and Hebrides routes could add on another £2 million if free berths were included.

Extending the existing 16-18 year old concessionary scheme, which gives four free ferry vouchers to the Scottish mainland a year, to five to 21 year olds could cost an additional £1.63 million a year if NorthLink cabins were included.

A full 100 per cent discount on flights for people aged under 22 would also have “significant financial costs”.

Shetland Islands Council already offers a sizeable discount on ferries for people under 19. The usual adult fare is £6 for returns on the busier routes as well as singles to outlying islands like Fair Isle and Foula.

But people aged under 19, as well as OAPs, pay £1.10, while those with a disabled SIC pass travel for free.

A Transport Scotland spokesperson said that “ferry fares will be reviewed in the forthcoming Islands Connectivity Plan and the Fair Fares review, which will look at the range of discounts and concessionary schemes available on all modes, including ferries, bus and Scotland’s light and heavy rail networks, and will consider both cost and availability of services.”

MSP Wishart said extending the free bus scheme to ferries is something she and Shetland’s Scottish Youth Parliament members have been pushing for “in the interests of fairness”.

“When I recently raised this issue with the transport minister, he said that responsibility for inter-island ferries lies with local authorities but I will keep pressing the government that ferries are often used in island communities in the same way as buses,” she added.

“It is not right that young islanders face transport costs their counterparts on mainland Scotland will not.

Lib Dem MSP Beatrice Wishart.

“I await with interest to see the range of schemes that will be given consideration in the forthcoming Islands Connectivity Plan and the Fair Fares review.”

While transport minister Graeme Dey did tell Wishart last month that ticket prices on internal ferries are the responsibility of local authorities, since the start of the financial year the Scottish Government has funded the financial gap between the council’s fare income and the costs of running the service.

Shetland Islands Council’s transport committee chairman Ryan Thomson said he was disappointed by the outcome of the islands impact assessment but had been “reassured” that fares will still be reviewed.

“Our ferries are a unique part of island life, and must be considered in the round and take into consideration the necessary and frequency of travel,” he said.

“They are our bridges, our roads, and should be treated as such. Our islands are essential to our local and national economies and I look forward to Shetland playing its part in feeding into both the Islands Connectivity Plan and Fair Fares Review.”