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News / Long time to wait for replacement freight vessels

NEW replacement Northern Isles freight vessels are a “long way away” yet, a meeting has heard – with Russia’s invasion of Ukraine delaying part of the process.

The possible timeline of the two ferries’ introduction was raised at a meeting of Shetland’s external transport forum on Wednesday.

But there is still no clear indication on this as the budget for their build has not yet been committed by the Scottish Government.

Meanwhile Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has had a knock-on effect on plans to undertake simulations of the proposed new ships, which are due to replace the Helliar and Hildasay.

This is because the owner of the world’s leading simulation company had a base in St Petersburg in Russia, and there were restrictions imposed on working with businesses in the country.

The meeting heard that the earliest the ships’ construction could go out to tender could be 2024, and one boat could take two and a half years to build alone.

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The latest renders as design work progresses for two new freight vessels. Image: Transport Scotland

Forum chair councillor Moraig Lyall said that given capacity constraints in peak periods – which has caused continued concern for industries like the seafood sector – it is a case of “the sooner the better” for the replacement freight ferries.

“I think a strong message has to be sent, [that] as an island group we are really holding out for this,” she said.

That view, however, appeared to be echoed by transport officials overseeing the project.

Transport Scotland’s Chris Wilcock told the meeting that the hope was to have the project “shovel ready” for when the budget for ships’ build is confirmed.

Designs are already being worked on – the larger ‘freight plus’ model which could host up to 200 passengers remains the frontrunner – and a business case will be built up over the next 12 months.

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Kevin Hobbs from Caledonian Maritime Assets Ltd (CMAL), the corporation which owns the Scottish Government’s ferries, said it would be a “calamity” if the construction went out to tender and the design was not right.

Regarding timescales Lyall asked if the new ships could be in service by 2030, with Hobbs said it would hopefully be before that.

He conceded, though, there is “no magic wand”.

However, Hobbs said: “We want to be ready to ‘press the button’ was quickly as we can.”

A timeline of 2026 was previously mooted for the boats to be in service, but that appears to have slipped.

Transport officials previously dismissed the idea of introducing daytime passenger sailings in peak periods to increase freight capacity on the Northern Isles ferry service.

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Daytime sailing proposal not taken forward

That view was reiterated at Wednesday’s meeting, with members hearing that practicalities of daytime sailings were difficult.

Shetland South councillor Robbie McGregor questioned if daytime sailings might be introduced during the busy Tall Ships event in Lerwick in July, but it was felt this would not work.

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