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Transport / No new freight ships before 2028, vessels plan states

Transport Scotland also says the annual deficit between operational costs and income on the Northern Isles ferry service has almost doubled in the last decade

AN UPDATED vessels and ports plan for Scotland’s ferries reiterates that new freight vessels will not be in service in the Northern Isles until 2028 at the earliest.

It adds that the hull design of these ‘freight plus’ vessels could be standardised and used as the basis of the future replacement of the NorthLink passenger vessels Hjaltland and Hrossey.

These two passenger ships will become 30 years old in 2032 and work on planning for and procuring their replacements will get underway in the coming years in view of new vessels being delivered in the early 2030s.

A previous possible design of a freight plus vessel.

Replacements for the Helliar and Hildasay freight vessels have been on the cards for a number of years, and transport officials have pinpointed a type of vessel that will include passenger cabins in the view of alleviating capacity pressure on the service in peak times.

The refreshed draft vessels and ports plan for the Clyde & Hebrides and Northern Isles ferry services, released on Thursday for consultation, said the earliest estimate for delivery for the two freight vessels is 2028/29.

The build of the vessels does not yet have allocated funding from the Scottish Government.

Shetland’s external transport forum heard last year that Transport Scotland continues to work in the background with ferry owners CMAL and Serco NorthLink to get the vessel design at a point where it is ready to go if funding becomes available.

Transport Scotland continues to stress that second hand tonnage will continue to be explored and “may present opportunities to accelerate benefits to communities by meeting an interim need”.

The document says Lerwick Port Authority has indicated that the infrastructure used by the Northern Isles ferry service in the town will need to be upgraded in the period between 2036 and 2045.

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Meanwhile a new report on Transport Scotland’s strategic approach to island connectivity was also published on Thursday.

Among the future actions Transport Scotland says it will undertake regarding freight are:

  • Encourage collaboration between operators, hauliers and businesses for greater forward planning and management of current and future capacity and current and forecast demand.
  • Consider whether the costs of sea freight transport could be shared differently between users, developers, and public funding and, alongside this, how financial support to island businesses could be more effectively targeted.
  • Identify the key “pinch points” on the network and consider options for additional vehicle capacity where this is practical, beneficial and affordable.

It also warns that the annual deficit between the operational costs and income from ferry fares for the Northern Isles and West Coast routes has increased by almost 100 per cent over the last 10 years.

This means that for every £1 paid by users towards covering the annual operating cost, another £2 of public funds are required.

It adds: “With public spending to remain constrained, decision-makers in both national and local government will need to make transparent and objective spending and investment decisions.”

However, Transport Scotland said it proposes to ensure that ferry services which communities depend on are “reliable and resilient so that residents, businesses and visitors can have confidence in these”.

Shetland MSP Beatrice Wishart said: “The draft raises more questions than it answers for the Northern Isles route such as, with five years to wait for freight vessel replacements, how are additional freight capacity needs going to be served meantime?

“And with twelve years to wait for passenger vessel replacement, how does the Scottish Government think that will impact islanders who already struggle to book a cabin and a car during peak seasons like school holidays?

“Twelve summers of pinch points and packed ferries will do little to fulfil the lifeline needs the service is there to provide, let alone encourage the growing tourism sector in the isles.”

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