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Transport / Ferry disruption highlights need for tunnels, action group vice chair says

THE DISRUPTION taking place on the Bluemull Sound ferry service “underscores the pressing need” for tunnels.

That is the view of Unst Tunnel Action Group vice-chair Alec Priest, who described the disruption as a “historic low point” in the service to the isles and a “stark reminder of our reliance on an outdated and vulnerable” transport system.

Meanwhile owner of the Final Checkout shop and cafe in Unst, Pat Burns, said there have already been “cost implications” for her business.

The ferry service to Unst and Fetlar is experiencing significant disruption from today (Wednesday) through to 28 May due a lack of cover for crew sickness.

It has caused frustration among residents of the islands, with the Unst Community Council calling for bookings to be reintroduced instead of suspended.

The community council also raised the idea of compensation for anyone who may be needing to stay a night somewhere as a result of the disruption.

A spokesperson for Shetland Islands Council said staff are in regular contact with community councils about any changes to ferries timetables.

“We’ll continue to discuss Bluemull Sound ferry provision with Unst and Fetlar Community Councils,” they said.

Addressing criticism that the changes were announced on Friday evening outside of working hours, the spokesman said: “This information was issued later on Friday to provide details of ferry timetable changes as early as possible, once these had been confirmed after staffing discussions that day.”

SIC political leader Emma Macdonald. Photo: Shetland News

North Isles councillor Ryan Thomson said the disruption will have a “profound and significant impact” on residents and businesses.

He added anyone with an NHS appointment, a flight to catch, or any other time-sensitive commitments should inform the booking office or ferry crews in advance to ensure they receive priority.

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Thomson added: “While fixed links are the ultimate solution, we must continue to adequately resource our ferry service in the interim.”

Meanwhile SIC leader Emma Macdonald had described it as “incredibly inconvenient” but she later said that was an “understatement”.

“I’ve lived in Yell and many of my family still do so I’m very aware of the challenges that face people on islands,” she said.

“We all live on an island and we often experience the challenges of transport and connectivity.

“It has been long known that the recruitment and retention of suitability qualified sea staff has been a challenge for the council and when faced with situations where people are off sick or on annual leave this becomes even more apparent.

“I do know that the team at ferry operations are doing everything they can to minimise the disruption whilst ensuring safety is being adhered to.”

Chair of the SIC’s environment and transport committee councillor Moraig Lyall said: “It’s a very frustrating situation to find ourselves in. It’s becoming increasingly difficult to maintain the ferry network given the vessels, crew and other essentials available for each route.

“I’m very aware that this is causing great distress in the North Isles and staff at Sella Ness have put a lot of effort into trying to find a better solution.

“We do keep looking for ways to improve our recruitment and retention, and there have been recent successful recruitment campaigns but regrettably on this occasion there simply aren’t enough masters with the correct qualifications and experience to maintain the Bluemull service.

“Many have raised the issue of being able to book during a restricted service and this is something I’ve asked staff to look at again.”

At the Final Checkout in Baltasound, owner Pat Burns said on Wednesday afternoon that they were already experiencing an impact.

“There are cost implications for us because trying to get our delivery van out on a Thursday and Tuesday, it means that we’ve got to go out early, so you’re paying extra for staff, and you don’t know when they’re getting back in again,” she said.

Burns also said there has not been much tourist traffic in the cafe, adding that no-one turned up for a booking for ten people this morning.

She also criticised there being no ferry bookings available during the period, and said the way the timetable changes were announced was confusing.

“Nobody knows what’s going on,” Burns said, adding that she had to create her own timetable to make sense of it.

“This won’t be the last time I don’t think,” she added. “I think it will happen frequently because there’s just not enough staff.”

Burns said it comes at a time when there is a lot of activity in Unst, with ‘hot fire’ testing for example taking place at the SaxaVord Spaceport.

Successful first ‘hot fire’ test at spaceport

The disruption – not the first to be experienced in the isles – is another example of why fixed links are the way forward, according to Unst Tunnel Action Group’s Alec Priest.

Both the Unst and Yell groups are continuing to fundraise to undertake their own initial surveys on possible tunnels to the two islands.

Meanwhile the SIC is undertaking a study on its inter-island transport network, which will include fixed links.

Priest said as a long-term resident of Unst he is “deeply concerned” about the ferry disruption.

“This situation underscores the pressing need for a long-term, reliable solution to our transportation challenges: subsea tunnels,” he said.

“For years, we have faced ongoing disruptions and limitations with the current model of inter-island transport.

“The current temporary timetable changes exacerbate these issues, impacting daily life, local businesses, and tourism to the isles.

“The new schedule, which significantly restricts the frequency and capacity of ferries, is a historic low point in service to these isles and is a stark reminder of our reliance on an outdated and vulnerable transportation system.”

He said reliability, economic growth, quality of life and better access for emergency services are key reasons why tunnels are the way forward.

Priest added that the “constant uncertainty and inconvenience of the ferry schedule” hinders the daily lives of island residents.

He continued: “The Unst Tunnel Action Group is working alongside the Shetland Islands Council and liaising with the Scottish Government to progress the development of subsea tunnels.

“The current ferry situation demonstrates the inadequacy of temporary fixes and the need for a sustainable, long-term solution. The investment in subsea tunnels will not only address the immediate issues but also secure the future prosperity and well-being of our island communities.”

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