Transport / NorthLink passenger numbers increase by 50 per cent in last two decades

PASSENGER numbers on Northern Isles ferry services to and from Shetland have risen by more than 50 per cent since 2003.

The figures have led to further calls for extra capacity on the north boats.

They show that in 2003 there were nearly 98,000 passengers carried to and from Shetland.

By 2013 that had risen to around 133,000 before increasing further to just over 150,000 this year to date.

Freight has also significantly shot up from 153,000 lane metres in 2003 to around 350,000 this year to date.

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

The number of cars on the service has increased from nearly 18,000 in 2003 to around 28,000 in 2023 to date.

Services moved under the NorthLink name in 2002/3.

The figures were presented to a meeting of Shetland’s external transport forum on Tuesday.


There have been continued concerns over passenger and freight capacity on the north boats over the years, especially during the summer and livestock seasons.

Councillor Liz Peterson asked at what point would Serco NorthLink, which has contracted by Transport Scotland to deliver the service since 2012, consider additional sailings due to demand.

But Serco NorthLink managing director Stuart Garrett said the practicalities of introducing daytime sailings, which have been explored in the past including for summer 2023, meant this was not a viable option.

This included the time it takes to turnaround the ships and get them ready for service.

Meanwhile forum chair Councillor Moraig Lyall said: “In some ways you’re running a 2023 service with vessels that were designed for a much lower demand.”

Garrett suggested additional assets or tonnage was the most appropriate way to solve demand issues.

He told the meeting that proposed ‘freight plus’ replacements for the existing cargo boats, which would offer passenger capacity, would be a “tremendous addition” to the Northern Isles fleet.

Become a supporter of Shetland News

Shetland News is asking its many readers to consider start paying for their dose of the latest local news delivered straight to their PC, tablet or mobile phone.

Journalism comes at a price and because that price is not being paid in today’s rapidly changing media world, most publishers - national and local - struggle financially despite very healthy audience figures.

Most online publishers have started charging for access to their websites, others have chosen a different route. Shetland News currently has  over 600 supporters  who are all making small voluntary financial contributions. All funds go towards covering our cost and improving the service further.

Your contribution will ensure Shetland News can: -

  • Bring you the headlines as they happen;
  • Stay editorially independent;
  • Give a voice to the community;
  • Grow site traffic further;
  • Research and publish more in-depth news, including more Shetland Lives features.

If you appreciate what we do and feel strongly about impartial local journalism, then please become a supporter of Shetland News by either making a single payment or monthly subscription.

Support us from as little as £3 per month – it only takes a minute to sign up. Thank you.



Subscribe to a selection of different newsletters from Shetland News, varying from breaking news delivered on the minute, to a weekly round-up of the opinion posts. All delivered straight to your inbox.

Daily Briefing Newsletter Weekly Highlights Newsletter Opinion Newsletter Life in Shetland Newsletter

JavaScript Required

We're sorry, but Shetland News isn't fully functional without JavaScript enabled.
Head over to the help page for instructions on how to enable JavaScript on your browser.

Your Privacy

We use cookies on our site to improve your experience.
By using our service, you agree to our Privacy Policy and Cookie Policy.

Browser is out-of-date

Shetland News isn't fully functional with this version of .
Head over to the help page for instructions on updating your browser for more security, improved speed and the best overall experience on this site.

Interested in Notifications?

Get notifications from Shetland News for important and breaking news.
You can unsubscribe at any time.

Become a supporter of Shetland News

We're committed to ensuring everyone has equitable access to impartial, open and quality local journalism that benefits all residents.

By supporting Shetland News, you play a vital role in ensuring we remain a pivotal resource in supporting the community.

Support us from as little as £3 per month – it only takes a minute to sign up. Thank you.