Transport / Transport minister open to NorthLink capacity solutions – but frustration remains for industry group

NorthLink freight ship Helliar.

THE SCOTTISH Government is “not ruling anything out” at this stage when it comes to solutions on easing capacity pressure on the NorthLink ferries in peak periods, according to transport minister Jenny Gilruth.

Additional daytime sailings have been mooted as one way of helping cabin – and freight – space on the Northern Isles ferry service at pinch points.

Gilruth said during a visit to Shetland on Tuesday that she is “not ruling anything out”.

“I will speak to officials in Transport Scotland about what proposals we might be able to fund,” she said.

Scottish transport minister Jenny Gilruth in Lerwick on Tuesday. Photo: Chris Cope/Shetland News

Gilruth added that she also gave the Stewart Building Group – which represents the seafood and haulage sectors – an assurance on that point.

But Stewart Building representatives said their meeting “brought little progress” on what the Shetland-based group sees as an “increasingly critical situation”.


Seafood Shetland chief executive Ruth Henderson said: “It is extremely disappointing that, as livestock shipping season draws ever closer, we continue to wait for a response to our proposal to introduce additional daytime sailings.

“We welcomed the opportunity to appraise the minister directly of the severity of the situation.

“While the proposal appears to have been discussed, however, it has certainly not been met with the enthusiasm that brought an almost immediate introduction of an additional sailing to the Scrabster – Stromness route in July.”

During her visit the SNP minister also met council representatives, and Shetland’s MSP and MP too.

Capacity issues on the Northern Isles ferries were brought to the fore again earlier this summer when photos of people sleeping on the floor of the overnight passenger ferry from Shetland to Aberdeen were shared widely on social media.

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The boat was at capacity after flights from Sumburgh Airport were cancelled due to fog.

This led MP Alistair Carmichael to describing the scenes as “utterly unacceptable” – with the Lib Dem calling for transport officials to face the public.

Gilruth said she raised this incident with ferry operator Serco NorthLink directly. “They assure me that capacity is being met,” she said.

“Of course, there will be pinch points in the year…and we would accept in the Scottish Government and Transport Scotland that the operator in this instance NorthLink would keep capacity under review or respond accordingly with any mitigations.”

Capacity on the two NorthLink freight vessels has also been a long-running worry for local industries.

This has led to a proposal from the Stewart Building Group to introduce additional daytime passenger ferry sailings in the peak livestock period to free up more space on the freight boats.


“In terms of freight I recognise there has been challenges here in the past,” Gilruth said.

“I met with the Stewart Building group back in March, and I committed at that time to coming to Shetland and meeting with them in person which I have fulfilled.

“But it’s really important that the haulage industry in Shetland is supported and businesses who rely on the freight services to get their stock to market have adequate capacity and I’ve heard again today of some of the challenges for the freight industry in doing that.

“So I have committed to speak to NorthLink about what more we might be able to support in the Scottish Government to ensure that there is that additionally and capacity, noting of course that NorthLink have told me capacity issues are being addressed at this moment in time, and are being met.”

But Seafood Shetland chief Henderson said after the meeting that the Stewart Building Group is “deeply frustrated” that “despite our very best efforts, there is no obvious active attempt by Transport Scotland to work towards a solution”.


She claimed officials have yet to acknowledge the findings of a study led by the group which “clearly demonstrated” the scale of the capacity problem.

Seafood Shetland’s Ruth Henderson.

“And despite their claims that they remain open to working with local suppliers to consider other ‘initiatives’, there appears to be no urgency to respond to what we have on the table,” Henderson added.

She said after the meeting there is hope that Gilruth can “bring some pressure to bear on the officials at Transport Scotland to address, with some urgency, the severe capacity issue that’s now only a matter of weeks away.”

Two replacement freight ferries are in the pipeline, and they are likely to be new models with feature extra passenger cabins to help capacity on the overall service in the summer.


But there remains uncertainty over when they may be in the water, with previous mentions of 2026 reportedly falling by the wayside.

Gilruth confirmed funding has been agreed to cover the cost of the design specification of the vessels – a project she described as “quite far advanced”.

“The next part will be to identify the funding in the Scottish Government to move forward with the vessels,” she said.

Gilruth conceded that as transport minister the issues with the ferries on the west of Scotland are at the forefront of her mind at the moment, with technical issues sidelining vessels creating scores of cancellations.

“But that can’t be to the detriment of the Northern Isles,” she said.

“So it’s really important the Northern Isles keep pace in terms of that investment and those decisions are being looked at very carefully at the highest levels in the Scottish Government just now to see what extra finance, additionally and certainty we can give in terms of those timescales.”


When asked if the 2026 timescale for the new freight vessels has slipped, Gilruth said: “I don’t think it’s fair to say it has slipped. What I would say is that there are serious ongoing discussions between finance ministers and myself around about how we can bring in that additionality that’s required to provide the greater reassurance folk need to see in terms of those additional vessels.”

Referring to how funding is not yet confirmed for the vessels’ build, Henderson said it was “astounding that this government is stifling its own aspirations for economic growth by failing to provide the necessary infrastructure for the very sectors that they champion: energy and food”.

“Once again, we are pleading with the government and Transport Scotland to listen to our proposals and urgently come up with a solution,” she said.

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