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Transport / Shared cabin Facebook group shows NorthLink policy is ‘probably not working’, transport minister says

Scottish transport minister Jenny Gilruth in Lerwick last year. Photo: Chris Cope/Shetland News

SCOTTISH transport minister Jenny Gilruth says she has made a commitment to speak to Serco NorthLink over its policy not to reintroduce shared cabins.

She said the fact that a Facebook group has been set up by Shetlanders offering people berths in cabins shows that NorthLink’s policy is “probably not working”.

Shared cabins – a popular choice for people looking to save money travelling to and from the Northern Isles – were stopped by NorthLink when the Covid pandemic began.

But the ferry operator has come under criticism for not reintroducing the option despite Covid restrictions coming to an end.

Speaking on a visit to Shetland on Tuesday, Gilruth told Shetland News that she committed to council members earlier in the day to raise the matter with NorthLink.

The ferry operator is contracted by government agency Transport Scotland to run services to Shetland and Orkney.

Its managing director Stuart Garrett told a meeting in June that the company has “no issue” over people organising sharing a cabin themselves – but he said there was no plans to change its stance.

“This was a policy decision taken by NorthLink in relation to the Covid outbreak, so it was in terms of protecting public safety,” Gilruth said.

“That has been kept under review, and I recognise that the use of shared cabins in Shetland has been culturally in existence here for many years.

“I think there may be challenges here – I think challenges have been raised in relation to I suppose potentially safety challenges.

“But I know that there’s a strength of feeling in the local community; I think there’s a Facebook page that folk share when they’re going to be travelling and using a shared cabin, so that says to me that the policy at this moment in time is probably not working.”

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Gilruth said Transport Scotland will revisit the matter with NorthLink to potentially bring “greater certainty for passengers, recognising there will be still a cohort of folk who want to travel in shared cabins”.

She said this would include “whether or not we can ask NorthLink as the operator to look at that decision, because of course it has been kept under review at this moment in time in relation to quite legitimate concerns in terms of public safety of Covid”.

Meanwhile Gilruth said the use of ‘pods’ on board the boats is a matter for Serco NorthLink as the operator.

A petition was recently handed to NorthLink boss Stuart Garrett featuring nearly 2,000 signatures from people who feel they are not adequate for an overnight journey to Shetland.

They are in effect large reclining seats and are promoted as a cheaper alternative for people who do not have a cabin.

Capacity on the passenger ferries has been a long-running issue in peak periods.

Gilruth said she flew to Shetland for her visit, but she did use a pod when travelling to the isles a few years ago.

“I travelled to Shetland back in 2019 for the by-election and travelled up and down in the pod,” she said.

“They’re maybe not as comfy as a bed, and I know there’s probably a strength of feeling locally about the pods.

“I’ve spoken to Stuart Garrett about it additionally when I met with him a few months ago now. It would be a matter for the operator to consider.”

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