Serco Northlink will continue to run the lifeline ferries to the Northern Isles. The new contract will start at the end of next month.
Orkney Constituency MSP, Liam McArthur, LibDem, said that islanders would be relieved.
The awarding of the contract was delayed due to a legal challenge by CalMac who had failed to secure it. CalMac withdrew its legal challenge and with the European Commission concluding that it did not infringe state aid rules it could go ahead.
Commenting on the completion of negotiations Paul Wheelhouse, Minister for Energy, Connectivity and the Islands in the Scottish Government said:
“I’m very pleased these issues have been resolved so that we can now start to focus on the award of the new contract and the benefits it will bring to the communities that are served by these lifeline ferry services.
“These include customer focused enhancements, such as extra premium cabins, terminal lounge refurbishment at Hatston and extended opening hours for customer services.
“We want to support key sectors of the Northern Isles’ economies, such as tourism, fishing, food and drink, aquaculture and farming.
“With these sectors in mind, the new contract will also include the flexibility to allow timetabled freight and ferry services to be amended to better reflect changes in future demand.
“All these improvements, coupled with the three year fares freeze and cabin discounts that came into effect on the first of January, underline the Scottish Government’s commitment to providing high quality ferry links to and from the Northern Isles.”
Liam McArthur is now pressing the Scottish Government to introduce full RET. Currently Shetland has partial RET. Ferries from Orkney across the Pentland Firth to mainland Scotland were excluded due to a legal challenge.
Liam McArthur said:
“Ministers must now crack on with introducing RET on Orkney’s ferry routes. We have waited years for access to the cheaper ferry fares the government put in place on west coast routes back in 2008. People in Orkney should have to wait no longer.”
Road Equivalent Tariff
In 2008 a pilot scheme for Road Equivalent Tariffs was established on routes to the Western Isles, Coll and Tiree. This was then extended and in 2015 it included all remaining Clyde and Hebrides Ferry Services routes.
Road Equivalent Tariff sets the ferry fares based on an estimation of what it would cost to travel that same distance by road. It significantly increases the number of vehicles using ferries both for islanders and those wishing to visit islands. Figures suggest that passengers who would before RET have been classed as ‘foot passengers’ now choose to take a vehicle with them.
The introduction of RET has had a huge impact on the islands where it is in place. It has resulted in a boost to tourism figures but with that has come the problem of lack of capacity on many of the routes. Businesses closely associated with tourism on the islands have been very positive about RET. For those who provide other goods making it cheaper to travel to mainland Scotland to shop meant that it did have a negative impact on those businesses. A survey conducted in Arran after the introduction of RET concluded that although residents were mostly in favour of the scheme that this was offset by a decline in quality of life. Residents now felt that at times the island was too busy and congested.
It will be interesting to see how the introduction of RET to Orkney which local politicians have been pressing the Scottish Government to get a move on with, affects the islands particularly over the summer months. There are only 3 months a year now when there are no cruise ships arriving in Orkney.
Orkney’s first cruise ship for 2020 arrives this month on 27th of February and the last one is on 22nd of October 2020. At the time of writing this the number of cruise ships due to visit Orkney in 2020 is 160. The cruise ships are serviced by a large number of buses which take passengers on guided tours around the main visitor sites. Orkney also has the day tours which come over from John O’Groats and a variety of other tour buses using the ferries. There are also an increasing number of visitors using mobile homes and those who come by car.
The islands where RET was introduced did not have this volume of tourist traffic already on their roads before the introduction of cheaper ferry fares. Once RET is introduced to Orkney the ‘islander discount’ will be replaced by cheaper fares for all. This will indeed make it cheaper for Orcadians to take their vehicles across the Pentland Firth and of course also for those wishing to visit Orkney.
Reporter: Fiona Grahame