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Transport / Time for governments to discuss ‘commitment’ to tunnels and new ferries – as Scottish Secretary lines up meeting

The Bressay ferry Leirna. Photo: SIC

A MEETING has been scheduled between Shetland Islands Council and Secretary of State for Scotland Alister Jack to talk tunnels and ferries – with the local authority keen for governments to make clear their commitment to funding future transport connectivity in the isles.

Leader Emma Macdonald has also written to first minister Humza Yousaf to request further talks with the Scottish Government.

The local authority says its ‘Shetland Short Crossings Project’, aimed at connecting all main islands by either a tunnel or a new ferry, is now at an “advanced planning stage”.

It comes after the council committed £700,000 earlier this year towards developing business cases on future inter-island connectivity.

The average age of Shetland’s inter-island ferries is now 30.2 years, with maintenance bills continuing to increase.

This has led the council to backing the idea of tunnels on its four busiest routes: to Yell, to Unst (from Yell), to Bressay and to Whalsay.

The council has lobbied both the UK and Scottish Governments on the issue, sharing the document Shetland Forward to support its aspirations on short crossings, maximising benefits from renewable energy projects and also digital connectivity.

Various funding options are being scoped – liaison is said to be ongoing with the UK Government to assist with the tunnels to the North Isles which would connect the mainland with the SaxaVord Spaceport, while discussions are ongoing with the Scottish Government to assist with the tunnels on the east side.

Community groups in Yell and Unst are also fundraising themselves for initial surveys for possible tunnels to the North Isles.

Shetland’s ferry fleet contains 12 vessels, which sail around 70,000 times a year to nine islands, carrying roughly 750,000 passengers.

SIC political leader Emma Macdonald. Photo: Shetland News

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A number of these vessels are already operating beyond their intended life, and are a major contributor to the islands’ carbon emissions.

Macdonald said: “The importance of the inter-island transport network to life in Shetland cannot be overestimated.

“It is the very definition of a lifeline service, and is the social and economic backbone of the islands.

“However, there are a handful of vessels which are already operating past their intended lifespan. If they are not replaced now, either by tunnels or new ferries, there is a material risk to lifeline services to Shetland’s islands.

“We understand that any project to replace ageing ferries with new vessels, or with tunnels, cannot be expected to be solely the responsibility of central government.

“Just as our islands’ incredible energy resources should be a shared benefit between Shetland, Scotland and the UK, the transportation between those islands should be a shared cost.

“This is the fairness which lies at the centre of our partnership; Shetland, Scotland and the UK sharing costs, and sharing benefits.

“In March, Shetland Islands Council committed to spend up to £700k on developing business cases and further work on the project; this is obviously a serious commitment of resources, and the time has now come for both the Scottish and UK Governments to make clear the level of their commitment to our partnership.

“I have written to both First Minister Humza Yousaf MSP, and Alister Jack MP, the Secretary of State for Scotland, asking for a summit to discuss transport connectivity – as well as digital connectivity and community benefit from renewable energy – and I’m pleased to confirm Mr. Jack has agreed to meet with me on those issues.

“Our discussions continue with the Scottish Government and I look forward to hearing from them in due course.”

The council and the Scottish Government are also involved in a task force specifically designed to “smooth the path” for the construction of replacement vessels.

The SIC said its ferries are on average almost six years older than the average Caledonian MacBrayne vessel operating on the west coast of Scotland.

The oldest ferry running in Shetland is the 41-year-old Hendra on the Whalsay service.

The UK Government has already pledged nearly £30 million for a new Fair Isle ferry plus harbour infrastructure.

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