Ferry Fares on the Orkney to Shetland route and from Aberdeen to Shetland are to be cut by 20% from Saturday 30th June. This is the first phase in the roll out of the RET style deal that was promised to the Northern Isles by the Scottish Government.
Due to the distance involved on the Shetland route it wasn’t possible to introduce the same scheme – Road Equivalent Tariff (RET)- which has been operational in the Western Isles – but a similar style one has been worked out.
Shetland, however, is to see the introduction of the first phase of these long awaited cuts to her ferry fares before Orkney which has more providers involved in securing a deal.
Orkney not only has the lifeline service provided by Serco Northlink but also has commercial operators. This means that all operators have to agree to the deal.
It also means that only 20% can be cut from fares in Shetland for the time being. Cutting fares in Shetland below those in Orkney (which would happen if the full RET style scheme were introduced in Shetland) would have legal risks because the Orkney set up has commercial operators.
Pentland Ferries is a commercial operator which runs a service between Gills Bay and St Margaret’s Hope.
Andrew Banks, Managing Director and Owner of family run Pentland Ferries said:
“We want this scheme to go ahead as soon as possible, it is good for Orkney and will help us attract more passengers. All we are now waiting for is confirmation that it’s fully legal and then we can get on with implementing it.
“Our lawyers have told us that because we are a commercial operation and currently receive no subsidy whatsoever, we have to be 100% sure that this scheme complies otherwise our whole business is at risk. We are not sure why it is taking so long to get simple confirmation.
“Although not one penny of the proposed subsidy comes to us, it goes directly to the passenger, we would be forced to pay it all back if it doesn’t comply, that could ruin us and we can’t take that risk.
“All we are asking for is for the Scottish Government to check that it’s legal with the EU and UK and then we can get on with it. We have written to the new Minister Michael Matheson MSP and invited him to visit the island and meet our staff so we can share our concerns with him directly and hopefully he will visit soon so we can get this unlocked.
“We have also today asked for a meeting with our local MSP Liam McArthur to see if he can do anything to get things moving forward on our behalf.
“This is extremely frustrating but as a family run, fully commercial Orcadian business, employing 70 people and with exciting expansion plans, we cannot put at risk our business until we are certain the Scottish Government’s proposal fully comply.”
Leader of Orkney Islands Council, James Stockan, has expressed mixed feelings about the ferry fare announcement.
“While pleased that there will be an immediate fare reduction on the Kirkwall – Lerwick route, I am extremely disappointed that RET (Road Equivalent Tariff) is not being introduced for ferry travel across the Pentland Firth.
“It means the highest ferry fares in Scotland will be charged on the Pentland Firth, compared to similar-length crossings elsewhere in the country, and this will seriously disadvantage our community. I am sure that people across Orkney will share my concern and frustration.”
“In Orkney’s best interests, efforts must continue to reach an agreement that allows RET to be brought in on Pentland Firth routes and I urge all those involved to find a way forward.”
Michael Matheson has just taken over the Ministerial post for Transport, Infrastructure and Connectivity in the Scottish Government. He is also keen to see the scheme delivered for Orkney as was promised and for Shetland to be able to benefit from the full implementation.
Michael Matheson said:
“The Scottish Government remains committed to delivering reduced ferry fares to the Northern Isles.
“I am conscious that there is a great deal of interest in this issue amongst users of the services. As I begin my new role as Transport Secretary, I want to ensure that I gain a full understanding of the detail – it is already very clear to me that planning to introduce reduced fares on the Northern Isles network has been a complex and challenging piece of work.
“As a first step, we will cut fares on the Aberdeen-Lerwick and Kirkwall-Lerwick services from 30 June. These reductions will be around 20% for both passengers and cars.
“On routes to Orkney, it has been necessary to engage with commercial operators on the Pentland Firth.
“We set out a very fair and reasonable proposal that would maintain competition, enabling them to protect their existing market share.
“Unfortunately, not all the commercial operators have felt able to agree to our proposals. This means we cannot currently implement reduced fares on any of the routes to and from Orkney without the risk of legal challenge.
“This is both disappointing and frustrating, but I am determined to work through the issue to see what more can be done.
“I have asked Transport Scotland to undertake some further work to see what measures, if any, we can take. As part of that, we are willing to reopen talks with commercial operators.
“I will provide a further update to stakeholders and to Parliament as soon as I can, with a view to bringing the full benefits of the scheme to the people of Orkney and Shetland.”
The Orkney News understands that the failure to agree the cuts to the ferry fares involved one commercial operator.
RET on ferries to The Western Isles has seen a surge in numbers using those ferries with many being overbooked in the summer months.
Reporter: Fiona Grahame