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Features / Transport partnership to analyse NorthLink ferry capacity

Capacity of both the NorthLink passenger and freight boats have come under scrutiny over recent years. Photo: Chris Cope/Shetland News

SHETLAND’s transport partnership is looking to gather data around capacity on the NorthLink ferries in the aim of “quantifying” the long-running issue.

ZetTrans chief officer Michael Craigie told a meeting of Lerwick Community Council on Monday night that the hope is to bring together information “based on evidence rather than hearsay”.

This data could then be used in discussions with the Scottish Government, which contracts Serco NorthLink to run the ferries.

Craigie said it would be used to inform the business case for two new replacement freight vessels being considered by the government’s Transport Scotland.

Capacity of both the NorthLink passenger and freight boats, which link Shetland to Orkney and Aberdeen, have come under scrutiny over recent years.

For passengers it tends to be lack of cabin or vehicle space in peak summer months, and on the cargo ships hauliers and local industry such as the fishing sector have regularly spoken out in favour of more space in pinch points.

Boxes of fish, for instance, have had to be left at the Lerwick quayside.

Craigie said capacity is a known issue to ZetTrans, but there has been a lack of figures to back things up.

“We have started undertaking a piece of work to model the NorthLink ferry service to analyse the capacity use and demand,” he said.

Craigie said this would be completed around July or August and added that the digital model could be used to reflect changes such as increases in tourism or construction traffic.

Earlier this year the Stewart Building Transport Group – which represents the interests of the haulage and seafood industries – presented the findings of its own freight capacity study.

That found that six in 10 northbound and four in 10 southbound sailings were running at “at least 90 per cent capacity, with one in ten over the allotted capacity” when it came to freight.

Meanwhile Craigie suggested the issue around capacity was partly a bureaucratic one.

He added that ZetTrans is in the middle of a process to get an agreement with NorthLink to receive data.

Craigie was also asked about the price of Loganair flights, but the transport chief reiterated that the airline is a commercial entity which needs to be financially viable.

However, he said there is potential to engage with the Scottish Government over its air discount scheme.

While it currently gives a 50 per cent discount on flights to the mainland for island residents, Craigie said evidence from other countries suggests it could go further.

While there was a lot of talk on ferries and flights, Craigie had appeared at the Lerwick Community Council meeting to clarify the process around a regional transport strategy draft case for change report which was criticised by members in April.

The report, written by consultants Stantec for ZetTrans, lead to one community councillor saying he “lost the will to live” when reading its 214 pages.

Another also criticised an apparent negativity in the report.

But Craigie stressed it was just the first part of a process which will ultimately see solutions proposed to the problems.

However, he conceded that the report could have benefitted from an executive summary.

“We should have done better at that,” Craigie said.