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Transport / Demand still growing for NorthLink ferry service, meeting hears

NorthLink's Hjaltland. Photo: Nick McCaffrey

DEMAND for the NorthLink ferry service is still growing, a meeting of Shetland’s external transport forum heard this week.

Serco NorthLink boss Stuart Garrett said passenger and vehicle figures for this year so far were higher than those of 2019, the year that is used as a pre-Covid benchmark.

Freight is also up on 2019 but there has been a slight downturn in recent years given that large constructions projects like the Viking Energy wind farm have largely come to an end.

Garrett said part of the demand is down to the attractiveness of the Northern Isles and suggested there may be “pent up demand” from visitors following the Covid pandemic.

There was concern, however, from Shetland councillor Liz Peterson, who said local people still can struggle to book exactly what they want on the boat.

Meanwhile Shetland Tourism Association chair Amanda Hawick said after the meeting that the prospect of no new ferries on the service for a number of years will have “major implications” for islanders’ travel as well as economic growth.

Work continues on the design of two replacement freight ships which would have passenger capacity, but these are only expected in service in 2028/29.

It also comes as VisitScotland has confirmed when it plans to close the Lerwick tourist office.

At Tuesday’s meeting, Garrett said there was still some availability in June and July for passengers but reiterated the message that it is first come, first served.

He highlighted that there are 239 group bookings over the next six weeks – some of these are visitors, some are local residents – which amounted to nearly 3,300 passengers.

“I think part of the answer is…the attractiveness of the island but also trying to service the island originating travel,” Garrett said.

The ferry chief added that there have been some instances where tour operators have cancelled bookings with a significant number of cabins at the last minute.

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With the two NorthLink freight vessels Hildasay and Helliar set to be replaced in the coming years, work continues on designing “freight plus” ships which would have passenger cabins on board.

But Neil Leslie from haulier Northwards said there was frustration at how long the process is taking.

He said it seems “to go on and on and on” and added that every delay puts more pressure on the existing service.

It comes after one of the existing freight vessels Helliar was taken into unscheduled dry dock in recent weeks, causing supply issues with Lerwick supermarket Tesco.

Transport Scotland said the hope is to have a business case ready before the end of the financial year.

The agency’s Chris Wilcock said funding is “still a challenge” but the aim is to take the project to a pint where a tender is ready to go.

He said Transport Scotland has heard the message from the community “loud and clear”.

The meeting heard again that transport officials continue to explore opportunities to bring in other vessels to the route – “second hand tonnage” – to alleviate capacity issues.

With a hope that the new vessels could in place in 2028/29, forum chair councillor Moraig Lyall said “the sooner we can have the vessels in place the better”.

Meanwhile lead officer of local transport partnership ZetTrans, Michael Craigie, told the meeting that “the capacity story tells itself”.

But he welcomed ongoing work on data modelling regarding demand on the ferries.

Craigie said this describes the interplay between freight, passengers and non-commercial vehicles.

He added that the reality is that “there’s no future of unconstrained connection between Shetland and mainland Scotland” – but said the data modelling will help to understand patterns in demand, which should provide an informed position rather than relying on anecdotes.

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