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Transport / Wishart in fresh call for under 22s bus travel scheme to expand to inter-island ferries

SIC ferry Dagalien at the Toft terminal.

SHETLAND MSP Beatrice Wishart has renewed calls for people aged under 22 to have free transport on inter-island ferries.

Speaking in the Scottish Parliament on Tuesday during a debate on ferries, the MSP said it was unfair that under 22s in Scotland get free bus travel – but a young person from Bressay, for example, has to pay for ferry to Lerwick.

During the debate Wishart also reiterated her support for tunnels to some of Shetland’s islands and backed a “swift move” to carbon-neutral ferries.

The debate was held to discuss a report released by the parliament’s Net Zero, Energy and Transport Committee earlier this year on a ‘Modern and Sustainable Ferry Service for Scotland’.

In the report, the committee encouraged the government to carry out a study on fixed links in Scotland, and called for stronger regulation on ferries.

Speaking in parliament, Wishart said that “plans must be in place today to secure the viability of communities tomorrow”.

Lib Dem MSP Beatrice Wishart.

She added that there is a concern that ferry issues on Scotland’s west coast could be replicated in the Northern Isles.

“We need a programme of renewal, and outgoing ferries must be retired in good time before they are unable to run a reliable service on the route,” Wishart said.

“We need a swift move to carbon-neutral ferries to help dramatically reduce Scotland’s carbon emissions.”

The Lib Dem also highlighted the impact freight and passenger capacity issues can have on the ferries to and from the Northern Isles.

“We need sufficient capacity for freight and passengers, accessible cabins, affordable prices and the ability to book up to a year in advance,” she said.

Wishart continued: “Freight capacity can constrict the northern isles’ contribution to Scotland’s economy.

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“Similarly, across Scotland, the agriculture, fishing and aquaculture sectors are impacted when sailings cannot go ahead due to vessel breakdown and lack of resilience.

“Haulage businesses, crofters, farmers and seafood exporters experience additional costs, and seasonal pinchpoints for livestock exports, which are well known to Transport Scotland, exacerbate the issue.”

The MSP also described the idea of tunnels to islands like Yell, Unst and Whalsay as beneficial – particularly from an environmental stance given they would replace carbon-emitting ferries.

“However, new ferries will still be needed in Shetland. That renewal of vessels needs to go ahead now, as operational limits are pushed, with the average age of the Shetland fleet being around 35 years,” she added.

“Our Nordic neighbours put us to shame, as, for some time, they have had electric ferries, which provide reliable transport and cut emission outputs. We can look to that sensible, workable model for sustainable and low-emission inspiration.”

Meanwhile Wishart welcomed recent news that everyone under 22 living on the islands will now be eligible for a voucher scheme offering some free trips on the NorthLink ferry.

All islanders aged under 22 to receive NorthLink ferry vouchers

But she stressed that the government should expand its free bus travel for under 22s scheme to inter-island ferries.

“The policy means that some people get free travel while others in the same age group do not,” Wishart said.

“For example, the only way for someone under 22 who lives on Bressay to get off the island is by ferry. There is no free bus that will take them across the stretch of water to Lerwick.

“I want Scotland’s inter-island ferries to be included in the free under-22 travel provision. Members of the Scottish Youth Parliament have previously called for that.

“I hope that the Scottish Government can be persuaded to further extend its islands to mainland offer.

“When I have pressed the Scottish Government on that, I have been directed to the fair fares review, the outcome of which is long awaited. The ferries need to be at the heart of the Scottish Government’s transport and net zero plans and serve the needs of islanders.”

In relation to about external transport, Scottish transport minister Fiona Hyslop said it is key for the government and operators to “engage widely and regularly with island communities as we shape services and contracts, and in doing so be informed by and reflect on the committee’s recommendations”.

She added: “The Scottish ministers have been clear that the reliability of ferry services needs to be supported by resilience in the fleet.

“That is why it is important that we are committed to the delivery of six new major vessels by 2026 as well as further investment in port infrastructure and the initial phase of the small vessel replacement plan.

“Design work is also progressing on the replacement freight vessels for northern isles ferry services.”

The SNP MSP also said a fair fares review is “due soon”.

In relation to internal transport, Hyslop said a ferries task force for the Shetland and Orkney councils is meeting again soon.

Highlands and Islands Conservative MSP Jamie Halcro Johnston said the committee report is “extremely welcome, but in itself it will change nothing”.

“We know that change is needed,” he said.

Meanwhile the region’s Labour MSP Rhoda Grant said that “we need to make sure that our ferry services are fit for purpose and are accessible to all users”.

She also highlighted that some inter-island vessels in the Northern Isles are not fully accessible.

Shetland News reported earlier this year about concern over the accessibility of one of the Whalsay ferries after a 79-year-old woman had to sit “freezing” on the deck after being unable to get inside.

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