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Transport / Transport chair welcomes new connectivity plan

But councillor Moraig Lyall says it is disappointing timescales for new NorthLink ships are not shorter

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

THE PUBLICATION of a new strategic plan for island transport connectivity in Scotland has been welcomed by the chair of Shetland Islands Council’s environment and transport committee.

But councillor Moraig Lyall, who also chairs Shetland’s external transport forum, said it was disappointing that the timescales for new NorthLink vessels are not shorter.

However, she said there a commitment that the transport needs of island will be re-assessed in 2024 gives “hope” that replacement vessels will better suit the needs of communities.

On Thursday the government agency Transport Scotland published the ‘strategic approach’ of its new draft islands connectivity plan, as well as a refreshed vessels and ports plan.

It shows that it would be no earlier than 2028 that Orkney and Shetland can expect replacement NorthLink freight boats.

No new freight ships before 2028, vessels plan states

At the moment designs are being worked on for cargo ships which would include passenger cabins to help capacity pressure in peak periods.

Meanwhile the vessels and ports plan said replacements for the NorthLink passenger vessels Hjaltland and Hrossey could be delivered in the 2030s.

Lyall said the plan appears to “wider, more strategic approach to island connectivity than previously”.

Regarding the freight ships, the councillor said she would “welcome a more detailed timeline for the new freighter-plus vessels whose designs are currently being refined to ensure that this is not allowed to slip any further”.

Shetland Central councillor Moraig Lyall. Photo: Shetland News

“The pressures on the capacity of the NorthLink are being felt now and we need to be assured that the search for additional second hand ships is continuing to bridge the gap between now and when new vessels enter service, which is at least five years away,” Lyall added.

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A key element of the island connectivity publication is a commitment to  carry out refreshed needs assessments for island communities served by the Northern Isles ferries, as well as those on the West Coast.

It will help to “identify options to address issues and opportunities for changes to current services by engaging with communities and other stakeholders”.

Meanwhile Lyall said the ongoing fare review across all modes of transport “opens the door to potentially offering reduced air fares to encourage more passengers to choose this option, taking a bit of the pressure off the boat”.

When it comes to fixed links, the report focuses on three potential connections to replacement ferry routes on the West Coast.

Outside of this, it said: “Proposals have been presented for fixed links across other key routes by local authorities, communities and action groups.

“While these remain the responsibility of local councils and authorities, we will continue to support and engage with them on these proposals.”

It also said additional fixed links could offer a high level of transport connectivity, “albeit at a substantial upfront cost”.

Lyall said it is “very encouraging to see fixed links being mentioned as viable alternatives for some routes”.

“While the report rightly points out the inter island routes in Shetland are the responsibility of the council the commitment to a collaborative approach between the Scottish Government and the council to find the best option is welcome,” she added.

“I would hope that the work of the ferry taskforce and the outcome of the inter-island connectivity study we are procuring as a council will form parts of the jigsaw that will help create the full picture of what the transport service in the islands will look like in the years ahead.”

Transport minister Fiona Hyslop said: “Islanders have made clear to me that they have, and deserve to have, high expectations of transport services to meet their connectivity needs.

“They want a system that can deliver reliability and resilience in challenging weather environments as a result of the changing climate.

“The Islands Connectivity Plan sets out to capture the transport connectivity needs for islanders and ferry users on mainland peninsulas. it recognises that we must ensure our islands remain attractive places to live, to visit and to relocate to.”

The MSP added that her officials will be hosting a series of engagement events and an online consultation will be carried out to ensure the views of the people that rely on our island transport links are heard.

“The Scottish Government is absolutely committed to ensuring that transport connectivity to our islands is reliable, affordable and inclusive to support the economic and population growth of these communities and this Island Connectivity Plan sets out a comprehensive plan to follow on from the six new vessels being delivered by 2026,” Hyslop added.

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