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Transport / ‘Additional tonnage is the answer to capacity’, ferry chief says

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

ADDITIONAL tonnage is the solution to capacity constraints on the NorthLink service, according to the operator’s managing director.

Stuart Garrett said Serco NorthLink continues to look across the globe for any additional vessels it can bring onto the service in peak periods – with one member of the team recently in the Southern Hemisphere looking at a boat.

However, his comments at a Scottish Parliament committee meeting on Tuesday came after differing claims regarding whether a visiting cargo ship, which docked in Lerwick at the weekend, was suitable for the Northern Isles route.

Garrett was speaking at a meeting of the net zero, energy and transport committee in a session about ferry services.

MSPs brought up a recent submission to the committee by Shetland councillor Moraig Lyall, who said capacity, cabins and cost were the three main concerns locally regarding the NorthLink ferry service.

Cabin space on the passenger vessels in the summer and freight capacity on the cargo ships in peak livestock periods have long been concerns.

But Garrett was clear that the solution remains in drafting in additional vessels to the service.

The passenger capacity on the Hrossey and Hjaltland is 600, and he said “rarely, if ever” has that been reached – although it has been 598 on a couple of occasions.

There are 117 cabins providing 362 cabin berths, with three pod lounges offering 102 seats.

“Cabins regularly are sold out,” Garrett said. “We have to get the mix right between car deck capacity, cabin capacity and the essential freight that we carry.”

The NorthLink chief explained that more than 70 per cent of forward bookings for 2023 are being made by visitors to the isles.

Garrett also brought up the suggestion for day sailings in peak periods, but he said it is a complicated situation.

He said seafarers work 11 hours a day, and live on board whilst on shift.

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Garrett also told the meeting that if a ship arrived very late at night after a daytime sailing there would be a lack of onward transport in Lerwick and Aberdeen.

“The resolution to the issue for capacity is additional tonnage,” he said.

The meeting heard that Serco NorthLink is working closely with Transport Scotland and government ferry owner CMAL on this.

“We’re aware of almost, I would like to think, all the tonnage that’s available that would be suitable that’s on the market worldwide,” Garrett said.

“We’re active in the market looking to see what’s available. Additional tonnage is the answer to capacity, simple as.”

The issue of shared cabins and how they are not being reintroduced after being halted during the Covid pandemic was also brought up by MSPs.

Garrett said there was a “bit of a fallacy” regarding the suggestion that having shared cabins results in better berth utilisation.

Jim Dow, Serco’s commercial director for NorthLink Ferries, reiterated that people can club together with other individuals and book a cabin between them.

A Facebook group called ‘Share a cabin on Northlink’ currently allows people to offer berths in their cabins.

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