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Transport / People advised to book in advance as NorthLink boss responds to letter on capacity

Serco NorthLink managing director Stuart Garrett: 'zero tolerance approach'.
Serco NorthLink managing director Stuart Garrett.

BOOK ahead in advance is one of the messages from the managing director of NorthLink Ferries in response to continued concerns over cabin capacity and deck space.

Stuart Garrett reiterated that bookings are made on a first come, first served basis, and that it is not possible to install more cabins on the busy passenger ships.

He was responding to a letter sent to NorthLink from Shetland North councillor Tom Morton as pressure grows in the community over capacity on the lifeline service, which links the Northern Isles and Aberdeen.

Morton wrote that there is a “lack or complete unavailability” of cabin and vehicle space, as well as difficulties in speaking to NorthLink’s customer service by phone.

He also highlighted that the shared cabins are still off limits after initial Covid restrictions, resulting in a Facebook group being created where travellers arrange their own shared accommodation.

Shetland North councillor Tom Morton.

There have been many reports of people struggling to book on the ferry to Aberdeen in peak periods – with folk also having difficulties getting their car on board.

Morton raised some potential solutions – “doubling the sailings of passenger and or freight boats to include daytime passages, and long term, increasing the number of passenger cabins and bunks as well as getting rid of the pods”.

Garrett said in response that people have always been advised to book in advance to secure first preference travel dates.

However one criticism has been that people often have to travel at short notice and cannot book far in advance.

“This said, from today 10 June through to 31 August 2022 there are currently 9,427 lane metres of space available to book on Hjaltland and Hrossey, the equivalent of 2,095 car spaces and over the same period 1,556 cabins remain available,” he said.

Garrett also denied that cabins were being block booked for Viking Energy wind farm construction workers, as most fly to and from Shetland on chartered planes.

He said the vast majority of NorthLink group bookings are from either community groups, or tour/coach operators.

“Indeed it would not be unusual for a bus party of 40 passengers to book out 22 cabins, perhaps even more if some single occupancy, never would the cabins be booked for all four bunks as could be used by a family with a car,” Garrett said.

He added that under Covid risk measures NorthLink has maintained its policy of not taking passengers on the two freight vessels.

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

Garrett said this is done “quite simply to protect the integrity of the Helliar and Hildasay as far as we possibly can”.

“We continue to review this position – doubling up the freighter crew brings with it risk and to date this policy has served us well,” he continued.

“During Covid we lost only six round trips of a freighter to Covid in a period of five ship operation extending over two years. Whilst I see ‘informed’ commentators calling for an immediate reversal of our properly considered risk assessed position, I believe we have done the right thing when considered against our contractual obligation in delivering a lifeline service.

“If locally our decision is seen as being out of step then I would simply ask that those commenting as such are aware of the risk that we run in delivering for Shetland and Orkney in having risk assessments by popular choice.

“I have highlighted this position at ZetTrans regularly, over the last two years as to why we have adopted the position taken. Zetrans being the appropriate forum for such discussions.”

NorthLink does allow vehicles to be shipped on the freight vessels if there is not enough space on the passenger ships – a service Garrett concedes has a “Marmite” effect in terms of popularity.

“This is a service we do provide if there is an option to do so and assist in facilitating travel plans accordingly,” he said. “Year to date we have shipped a total of 29,272 passenger vehicles with just over 60 of these valet parked on freight vessels.”

There is, however, work ongoing to replace the Helliar and Hildasay – potentially with a design which includes passenger cabins.

The NorthLink chief also reiterated in his response to Morton that due to “regulatory factors and design constraints” it is not possible to introduce more cabins on the Hjaltland and Hrossey passenger vessels.

He said the cheaper sleeping pods – which Morton described as “Places of Doom” – are a good use of available space and do get decent customer feedback.

When it comes to concern over accessing NorthLink’s customer service, Garrett said recruitment is a challenge and waiting times for calls is higher than usual, although hours have been extended.

This is in part due to people rearranging holidays after Covid cancellations, or customers amending plans having been affected by the virus.

“Anecdotally we have also noted from our customers that a significant driver of demand appears to be higher fares in the airline sector, this then resulting in additional demands on our services,” Garrett said.

On the topic of additional sailings, Garrett said it was a matter for government agency Transport Scotland, which contracts Serco NorthLink to run the service.

However, the service contract says that the “operator will be entitled to propose sailings supplementary to those set out in the timetable on such occasions as it considers appropriate and to meet seasonal demand”.