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Transport / Daytime sailing proposal not taken forward

NorthLink passenger ferry Hjaltland arriving at Lerwick Harbour. Photo: Shetland News

THE PROPOSAL to introduce sailings on the NorthLink ferry service has been ruled out by transport officials.

It comes after operator Serco NorthLink felt that any disruption to daytime sailings would make it impossible to maintain the current evening schedule.

The idea of daytime sailings had been proposed as a way of alleviating capacity pressure on the service.

The local seafood industry and hauliers suggested two additional daytime passenger sailings on the Lerwick-Aberdeen NorthLink service during the peak livestock season to alleviate freight capacity concerns.

Meanwhile councillor Ryan Thomson, who was formerly the SIC’s environment and transport committee chair, also proposed daytime passenger sailings in peak months.

But their suggestions have been thrown out after “careful consideration” by the operator.

It comes as two replacement freight vessels are in the offing for the Northern Isles, potentially with extra passenger cabin space – but concerns remain that it will be years before they are in service.

A spokesperson for Transport Scotland, which contracts Serco NorthLink to run the service, said: “Ministers are very clear about the importance of supporting ferry services for the economic wellbeing of key rural industries and our island communities.

“The planned development of the two new freight vessels will address concerns surrounding capacity on other NorthLink routes in the longer term and the timetable for their delivery will be set out in the Islands Connectivity Plan, which will be published for consultation later this year.

“CMAL and NorthLink also continue to look for suitable second hand tonnage that could be added to the Northern Isles fleet.

“NorthLink take into account all available data to allow informed decisions to be made to ease capacity issues during peaks in demand, including what time sensitive freight can be accommodated on the passenger vessels.”

Representing the Stewart Building Transport Group, which brings together Shetland seafood and haulage interests, Ruth Henderson said:

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“In June, the Stewart Building Transport Group presented a proposal to introduce day time sailings to cover peak livestock season. We received a response from the Transport Minister on 26 October, stating that the daytime sailings were not considered a viable option at present. This news only came when normal service had resumed.

“The service continues to operate over capacity and there is absolutely no evidence that Transport Scotland is doing anything to address the issue. Instead, it is left up to the operator, Serco NorthLink Ferries, and hauliers to perform logistical miracles in order to keep freight moving – and the islands contributing to the wider economy.”

Councillor Thomson said he trusts the daytime sailing decision came about after discussions with local stakeholders, businesses, the SIC and transport partnership ZetTrans.

“Therefore naturally the next question would be, now another suggestion has been made and dismissed, what are Transport Scotland actively doing to address the short and medium term capacity issues for Shetland businesses and the travelling public?” he said.

“Freight plus is probably ten plus years away and asking businesses and Shetlanders to avoid peak times for that length of time isn’t a sustainable solution”

The peak livestock season is generally in September and October, and during this time additional capacity is scheduled into the timetable between Kirkwall and Aberdeen to provide more sailings in the early part of the week.

Serco NorthLink Ferries liaises with livestock customers in the summer to establish how they expect the season to go.

Timetable consultation includes freight customers who move regular loads, and the ferry operator seeks to work with them to maximise use of capacity on the whole fleet.

It is understood that non-time sensitive freight such as construction materials were moved earlier than planned this year to free up capacity during the peak livestock season in September.

Serco NorthLink said it is confident there was sufficient capacity available to carry predicted freight volumes during the period.

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