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Transport / Return of Papa Stour ferry sailings on Mondays ‘desperately needed’

The SIC’s Michael Craigie says the route is a ‘current priority’ for the council

Jane Puckey. Photo: Chris Cope/Shetland News

THERE is growing frustration in the remote Papa Stour community that no Monday sailings have been reinstated to the island’s ferry timetable, which are said to be “desperately needed”.

Community councillor Jane Puckey said there was a hope that Monday sailings would be reintroduced by Shetland Islands Council to make up for flights to Papa Stour being stopped a couple of years ago.

But that has not come to pass yet, leaving locals for instance without mail deliveries between Saturday and Wednesday.

The ferry timetable also affects people’s access to healthcare, and has reportedly seen one young couple decide against setting up a business in the island.

Shetland Islands Council’s transport operations manager Michael Craigie confirmed that the local authority will be working on the Papa Stour service “over the next few months in terms of service specification amongst other things”.

“We have the business case for the Papa Stour ferry as a current priority and progress on this will be subject to available staff resource which is uncertain until the new council considers the case for additional staff,” he added.

There are plans for a meeting in Papa Stour later this month to update the community.

Papa Stour, which lies off the west of the Shetland mainland, has a full-time population of only seven – but add in crofters who come in and out of the island, and the community rises to 20-plus.

A Monday sailing was removed from the island’s timetable as part of cutbacks around ten years ago which affected ferry services across the isles.

It left sailings, to and from West Burrafirth, on Wednesdays, Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays – with a flight coming in and out on Tuesdays.

But as part of a review of inter-island flights, the decision was made in 2019 in consultation with the community to stop air services to Papa Stour.

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The air service was very lightly used, with airstrip sometimes going long periods of time without a flight.

A report at the time said consideration was to be given to enhancing the ferry service as a “compensatory measure”, but Puckey said there is a frustration about the lack of progress.

The ferry berthed at Papa Stour. Photo © Philip Cornwall (cc-by-sa/2.0)

“After the air service was removed, that left us with no transport in or out from Sunday night to Wednesday morning,” she said.

“What we would like is to have the ferry reinstated with the afternoon run as well, on a Monday, which would make a difference to us. We desperately need it back.”

Puckey – an ex-teacher who herself lives on the Shetland mainland after running a croft in Papa Stour – claimed she previously tried to raise the issue with councillors, but to no avail.

She added that in the eyes of the Scottish Government the Papa Stour route is underserved.

Puckey said crofters coming in and out of the island are among the main users of the ferry, which is the 12-passenger Snolda.

Papa Stour. Photo: Shetland News

For example a trip to take sheep to the slaughterhouse in Lerwick for a Monday morning means having to take them out of Papa Stour on the Saturday night and staying overnight on the mainland.

As is the way with island life, transport affects all parts of life; there is no post for half the week, which Puckey said is “unacceptable” if you are running a business.

And she said when post goes out of Papa Stour on a Saturday morning, due to the ferry timetable it tends to stay put in Bixter until Monday before being taken to Lerwick.

“If someone has a hospital appointment they have to explain why it can only be on a Wednesday or Friday,” Puckey added.

Reflecting the difficulties of remote island life, she also said in one instance a local resident had to wait four days for medication to arrive.

The timetable also restricts the time visitors can spend in Papa Stour, and also brings in extra difficulties for contractors.

Puckey also said in the summer the Snolda is “heavily booked, and it is a struggle sometimes to actually get a place on the ferry”.

But she stressed no-one had any criticism of those working on the ferry. “They are tops,” Puckey said. “They will go above and beyond the call of duty when necessary.”

When it comes to inter-island ferries, council staff – as well those in the chamber – have been focused in the last couple of years on achieving ‘fair funding’ – getting the Scottish Government to cover the financial deficit in running the services.

That was secured for the current financial year, with the deal – bringing in £10.8 million from the government – regarded as perhaps the top achievement of the last council term.

Perhaps one alternative solution to worries over mail and medication could be deliveries by drone – something which has been trialled in Shetland already between Tingwall and Unst.

In a bid to improve the reliability of services in remote areas, the Royal Mail has since confirmed plans to introduce mail trips by drone in parts of the UK, with Shetland set to be one of the first places to benefit.

However, the exact routes in Shetland have yet to be finalised.

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