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Transport / ‘Utterly unacceptable’: ‘Grim’ scenes on busy ferry as passengers ‘compete for floor space’ to sleep

Transport Scotland said the boat was busier than usual due to flight cancellations – and ‘seats were available for each of the 585 passengers on board the vessel’

Photo: NorthLink Ferries

THE SCENES on the NorthLink ferry from Lerwick to Aberdeen last night (Thursday) have been described by one passenger as “grim” – as children and older people were said to “compete” for sleeping space on the floor because there was no cabin availability.

The Hrossey was nearly at full capacity after Loganair services to and from the mainland were cancelled because of fog, with 88 people able to be taken on the ferry at short notice after flights were called off.

Calum Fraser was on the 12-hour trip south and he said “seeing small children and elderly passengers having to basically sleep rough on the floor and compete for any little bit of seating space they could shouldn’t be allowed”.

Photos from the sailing showed people forced to sleep in public corridors.

A spokesperson for Transport Scotland said no welfare concerns were presented to staff, and “as per maritime regulations, seats were available for each of the 585 passengers on board the vessel”.

The vessel in question has a total capacity of 600 people.

Northern Isles MP Alistair Carmichael. Photo: Shetland News

Northern Isles MP Alistair Carmichael said it was “utterly unacceptable” and confirmed he would be raising the matter further.

“This is worse than I have ever seen but this is not a new problem, and it is getting worse,” he said.

“The Scottish Government’s transport minister, NorthLink senior management and Transport Scotland need to get up here now, face the public and sort it out.

“It cannot be beyond the wit of man to anticipate spikes in demand like this and to make provision to deal with them. This is a lifeline service which receives large amounts of public money. We deserve better than this.”

It comes at a time of huge pressure on Shetland’s transport links.

Concern over capacity on the NorthLink boats is nothing new, but it has been brought back into sharp focus amid increased tourism and unreliability with flights.

While there is nothing that can be done about fog, a recent meeting of the Shetland external transport forum heard from an NHS official that an increasing number of patients with appointments south were taking the boat because of concern over flight reliability.

There has also been criticism that service operator Serco NorthLink does not currently intend to reintroduce the scheme where people can buy a bunk in a shared cabin, which was stopped when the Covid pandemic struck.

Fraser said he was travelling south for work but had to take the boat because of the flight cancellations.

He said the crew “did their best with the sheer quantity of folk” but said it was “appalling” that people were competing for space on the floor.

Fraser added: “For locals this is a ‘lifeline service’ where folk has no choice but go to mainland Scotland for hospital appointments, bereavement, or to actually work.

“When you see visitors to Shetland onboard complaining to staff because they don’t have a cabin or bed just remember, we locals live here and unfortunately these things happen. We have no choice to put up with it. We can’t get the option.

“Nothing against people visiting but when everybody is promoting tourism on social media as much as they are and rejoicing four months in advance they have their booking bear a thought for the people who actually need the service – it’s already straining under the pressure before any more.”

For those who do not have a cabin, reclining seats and ‘sleeping pods’ are available, but they are not the most popular.

People without a cabin trying to catch some horizontal forty winks on the seating in the bars used to be a common sight, but a number of years ago dividers were installed to discourage people lying down.

Earlier this week Shetland councillor Ryan Thomson called for daytime sailings to be introduced in peak periods to help with capacity.

Government agency Transport Scotland, which contracts Serco NorthLink to run the Northern Isles service, said in response that it “remains open to working with local stakeholders to consider other initiatives, which are both practical and offer value for money”.

Thomson however said the scenes on last night’s boat were “disgraceful”.

“This was always the norm but with the lack of shared cabins available which made travel affordable for many, this has exacerbated the problem.”

Shetland MSP Beatrice Wishart.

Shetland MSP Beatrice Wishart said the Scottish Government needs consider all options – including daytime sailings.

“This is wholly unacceptable,” she said. “Our ferries are lifeline services and need to have the flexibility to ensure anyone needing passage is able to travel safely and comfortably.

“This just highlights the fragility of the current Serco NorthLink capacity. It is evident that with residents needing to travel, increasing tourism to the isles and commercial freight needs, we have outgrown capacity.

“The Scottish Government need to get serious and think outside the box for short and long term solutions about travel capacity on the Aberdeen-Lerwick route and consider all options such as daytime sailings in addition to the current timetable.”

Transport Scotland is looking at replacing the two freight ships with vessels featuring a number of passenger cabins.

However, these may only be in service from 2026 onwards.

Shetland Islands Council convener Andrea Manson said it was “time for major improvements to the service”.

But she said it is not necessarily operator NorthLink’s fault.

“They can only supply the service that Transport Scotland contracts them to supply. [It’s] time for change.”

Thomson also believed that the next ferry contract “must be put in the hands of Shetlanders to reverse the problems and put the passenger first once more”.

Meanwhile Shetland Islands Council’s transport committee chair Moraig Lyall said she was on the ferry that night – “but was one of the fortunate ones” with a cabin, having booked some months ago.

“It was the start of the school holiday and it was foggy so not surprising that it was full to capacity,” she said.

“But it serves to emphasise that there are capacity issues with the boat. Not just with cabins as there were multiple messages asking folk to vacate tables in the restaurant to allow others space to eat.

“Transport Scotland and Northlink ferries can’t fail to be aware of the situation and the fact that the new freighter-plus replacement boats are likely to be later to arrive than might have been suggested last year means that shorter term solutions need to be looked at to try and ease the squeeze at peak times.”

Lyall also added there were “no trucks on board – it was all cars”.

A spokesperson for Transport Scotland said: “Despite it being the busy tourist season, NorthLink was able to accommodate an additional 88 passengers at short notice when flights were cancelled due to weather conditions.

“This may have made the sailing seem busier than usual or what was expected, and that may have caused some inconvenience to some passengers.

“However, where there are weather related issues for one mode of transport that risk causing real difficulty for the travelling public, we would all expect other publicly supported transport modes to step in and help out where they can.

“As per maritime regulations, seats were available for each of the 585 passengers on board the vessel. NorthLink also provided assistance with onward travel arrangements to several passengers whose flights had been cancelled and we thank NorthLink and the ferry’s crew for the help and support they gave people at short notice.”

Captain John Strathearn, Serco’s operations director at NorthLink Ferries, said: “After flight services between Lerwick and Aberdeen last night were unexpectedly cancelled, we saw a last-minute surge in foot passenger bookings on this route, which we were thankfully able to accommodate.

“While our ferry was busy amid the summer season, we can confirm there was a seat available on board for every passenger on the vessel, and all passengers reached their destination safely.”