The Road to the Isles – By Ferry – Is this the Future?

The Faroe Islands (population 48,678) opened the Eysturoyartunnilin, on December 19th 2020. The undersea tunnel connects  the island of Streymoy to the island of Eysturoy.

Borðoy Image by Vincent van Zeijst, CC BY-SA 3.0 , via Wikimedia Commons

There are 19 road tunnels connecting up towns and islands across the Faroes. Meanwhile back in Scotland (population 5.46 million) for most of our islands it’s either ferry or aircraft to travel to them.

Orkney has the Churchill Barriers which connects up the largest island Mainland with Burray and South Ronaldsay. Constructed during World War II the barriers were there as a defensive structure to stop enemy U Boats accessing the fleet of the Royal Navy following the disaster of the Royal Oak.

In 1995 the Skye road bridge was opened and after a massive campaign by islanders to have the tolls abolished, on the 21st of December 2004 the bridge was purchased by the Scottish Government and made free to cross.

Skye Bridge (photo B Bell)

Why is Scotland so lacking in ambition that nearly a quarter of the way into the 21stC, ferry is still the only way for most islanders, mainlanders and freight to get to and from our islands ?

Whether it’s inter island ferry journeys or travel from mainland Scotland to our islands – time, cost, the weather – all of these factors make the journey difficult. Added into that is the maintenance and replacement of ageing ferries when we are also looking for ways to reduce our carbon footprint.

The two issues which seriously affect depopulation, the sustainability of islands and which arise at every election are: housing and transport.

The Loch Seaforth, which services the Ullapool to Stornoway route, has been out of commission for months and a promised return date of 17 May was pushed back to now perhaps the 28th May.

Labour MSP for the Highlands and Islands Rhoda Grant has written to Caledonian MacBrayne about the situation.

Rhoda Grant said:

“The Caledonian MacBrayne ferry network has been in utter chaos for the last few months, leaving communities short of supplies and struggling to maintain lifeline connections. It may seem like it’s only one or two ferries, but it’s had a devastating domino effect throughout the network, leaving communities like Barra with barely any service.

“Given travel has been restricted during that time period and travel has been well down, I hate to think how bad it would have been given normal capacity demand.

“With that in mind, restrictions are now being lifted, people are being encouraged to take staycation holidays in the islands and we are entering the summer peak; demand is about to soar beyond what the network normally struggles to deal with, and Scottish Government is blithely allowing it to limp along unchallenged. The disdain being shown for island communities is audacious.

“Cal Mac promised faithfully that the Loch Seaforth would be back on its route by the 17th, but rumblings surfaced early on that this was wildly optimistic and that the boat would not be ready.  In the meantime they were offered a lease of a temporary replacement which could have been in place by now and they refused. Any further delay will be devastating for communities desperate to recover from the last 14 months.”

The council leader for Comhairle nan Eilean Siar has contacted the Scottish Government over the use of the MV Pentalina, currently sitting unused in Kirkwall. He has proposed in the short term (that is till then end of 2022) to:

Charter MV Pentalina to operate the Craignure to Oban service and release MV Coruisk to return to providing the service from Mallaig – Armadale.  This will free up MV Lord of the Isles to provide a dedicated service to South Uist operating an island based service that better connects with rail services to Glasgow and increases frequency across the week. Solution can be delivered within 4 – 5 weeks of a charter agreement being reached.

Pentalina image Nick Morrison

In Orkney the interisland ferries are the responsibility of the Orkney Islands Council (1987) through Orkney Ferries

The full council is to decide on a reduction of ferry fares on 31st May. The fares would change as follows:

  • Inner Isles adult passenger fare would reduce from the current £4.55 to £2.82
  • Inner isles car fare would reduce from the current £14.40 down to £8.93
  • Outer North Isles car fare would reduce from the current £20.90 down to £12.96
  • Outer North Isles adult passenger fare would reduce from the current £8.85 down to £5.49

These proposals are possible due to extra funding for the ferries in Orkney from the Scottish Government. It will also see the phased in raising of the age related concessionary rate from the current 60 to 65.

Varagen in Kirkwall credit: Mike Robertson

Commenting on the inter island ferry fares Orkney Constitunecy MSP Liam McArthur, LibDem said:

“For years, Orkney’s internal ferry services has fallen below the government’s own minimum standard when it comes to cost and frequency.  So funding to help reduce fares and increase services is welcome and long overdue.

“However, this can’t be subject to an annual negotiation and Scottish Government must now commit to support these changes over the long term.  I have written to the new Transport Minister, Graeme Dey, urging him to make that commitment as well as reinforcing the need to make progress in procuring new vessels.

“Meantime, I will be meeting with Orkney Ferries early next week to discuss concerns raised by isles constituents about proposed changes to the fare structure as well as the current booking system. Given the lifeline nature of these services, it is important that they meet the needs of those living and working in the inner and outer isles”.

The ageing vessels are needing replaced. Last year the council purchased The Nordic Sea, with significant funding from Transport Scotland (the Scottish Government), with the intention of it servicing the route from Westray to Papa Westray. Despite the expenditure to date – the total of which is not known – The Nordic Sea is still not in regular service. The Nordic Sea Update

There are different services to travel from the Northern Isles to mainland Scotland. What is known as the lifeline service is run by Serco Northlink. Those routes go from Aberdeen to Shetland, Aberdeen to Orkney and Scrabster to Orkney.

There is also in Orkney the privately operated Pentland Ferries which operates the Pentland Firth route St Margaret’s Hope (Orkney) to Gills Bay. John O’Groats Ferries (JOG) offer a passenger only summer service from John O Groats to Burwick (Orkney).

CalMac (Caledonian MacBrayne) provides the lifeline service for Scotland’s West coast. It is wholly owned by Scottish Government Ministers.

So what we have in Scotland is a confused and confusing picture of ferry provision to our islands. Lifeline services are all substantially subsidised by Scottish Government funding.

RET – Road Equivalent Tariff

How much you pay to take your car on a ferry varies wherever you are but it will be subsidised to some extent. Road Equivalent Tariff sets the cost in relation to how much you would have to pay if you were able to drive your car to its destination – as if there was a bridge or a tunnel to take you there. RET is applied to routes to the Western Isles and up to Shetland. For the Pentland Firth routes to Orkney agreement still has not been reached because there are different ferry operators. This is an issue which has been going on now for years.

There are issues with RET.

Since RET was first introduced in 2008, it has cost the Scottish Government a cumulative £120m. As previously noted, the expansion of RET to the 2015 islands has significantly ramped-up the annual funding requirement, such that around £100m of revenue support will be required every four years to maintain RET fares at their current level.

Transport Scotland

The introduction of RET on these routes also increased vehicle usage. This had the knock on effect of islanders being unable to book their cars on for essential journeys to mainland Scotland because of an increase in visitor traffic.

What we have in Scotland is a transport service to our islands which is not fit for the 21st Century. We don’t have the connectivity that the much smaller Faroe Islands have. And if we don’t want to go down the fixed linked route we urgently need to be building ferries that are powered by engines which are not contributing to the climate emergency.

Countries like Denmark are investing considerably in electric ferries. Ellen : “The Tesla of the Sea” . This year the world’s largest electric ferry went into operation in Norway.

It will be interesting to see how Scotland’s Finance Secretary Kate Forbes tackles the ferry issue in her forthcoming budget. In her last budget Orkney benefited from increased funding. Welcome Budget News For Ferries in Orkney The deal in early 2021 included:

  • A freeze for islander passenger and car fares on services between Orkney, Shetland and Aberdeen
  • Seeking ways to reduce passenger and car fares on ferry services to and from Orkney and Shetland
  • An additional £7.7 million to support the inter-island ferries in Orkney and Shetland.
  • Implementing the next Northern Isles Ferry Services contract

It is all just tinkering, constantly subsidising, keeping old polluting ferries going and lacking in vision and ambition.

If much smaller countries can tackle their transport issues connecting up their islands so creatively and successfully why can’t Scotland?

sunset at Houton Ferry terminal Image Bell

Reporter: Fiona Grahame

5 replies »

  1. I wouldn’t hold your breath looking for a solution from the Scottish Government. Two ferries on order to CalMac, at least 4 years late and well over budget. Their solution was to nationalise the shipyard and write off millions.
    Well as long as the tap from Westminster is turned fully on, no problem!

    • On the other hand if Scotland had its own government it wouldnt have to rely on Westminster for handouts, after all its not as if we wouldnt be far better off, but you all keep voting for the Liserals after all Joe Grimmond lived there and they do so much for you

  2. If Scotland had the present lot as its sole government then taxes would rocket and public services cut to the bone in order to have any meaningful fiscal balance.
    The SNP kept criticising Westminster over austerity, but this would pale into insignificance in comparison to what generation of Scots would suffer with independence.
    It will be interesting to see what smoke and mirrors they come up with to hide this from their electorate.
    In 2014 Salmond produced a weighty white document on his vision of an Independent Scotland. All tosh of course, the most expensive door stop the Scottish taxpayer has ever produced,

  3. I am risking a comment here which might be unpopolar. Tunnels may offer convenience and – in the very, very long term – safe costs. However, they do come with side effects. Currently, in the Outer Isles, crimes, burglars etc. are the absolute exception. Not a surprise because bad guys would experience a welcome-by-police reception at arrival in Kirkwall. Also, currently we are exempt from MOT. This would change with the establishment of fixed links. For many, keeping cars maintained – not only roadworthy as we all do now – but to MOT standards, is simply neither feasible nor affordable. The benefit, that drivers can drive unaccompanied with L-plates, would also go. I personally know quite a lot of elderly folk who have been driving like this for their whole live. It should also be considered that sometimes highly flammable cargo is being transported to the isles. On a ferry with an open car deck, it is far easier to deal with the associated risks. In a tunnel, this is a nightmare.
    So far, there was not really commuting for work during normal office hours anyway, a look at the current timetables illustrates this. However, for this type of commuting the Loganair Inter-Island service, running anyway due to postal services, was and is useful.
    So what is the need to ‘improve’ (if this could be considered an improvement at all) the physical transport connectivity?
    Instead investment in the digital connectivity is required! So many jobs, even the ones pre-Covid requiring physical presence in the workplace, can be done remotely, as we have found out over the course of the last 1.5 years.
    I am also not convinced that the reduction in fares will turn out to result in an overall benefit. Foot-passengers might be ok but when car journeys become too cheap (which they would), this would only act as an incentive to travel more often to Kirkwall for shopping. The ones, who’d miss out, would be the island shops (and other small businesses if present) who have done their utmost to keep us supplied during the pandemic and will do so during the next… if we keep them viable.
    Their very existence could be compromised if everyone starts to shop more regularly on mainland Orkney for the benefit of their own purses and the supermarket chains.

    I think, we should all learn to come to balanced views and not jump and shout hurra whenever someting, which may only look convenient at a first glance, comes up. Collateral damage has to be considered too.

    For my part, I’d be happy with
    1. A cost-saving reduction in ferry services (i.e. 3 return sailings per week) with a focus on cargo (which keeps our local shops supplied),
    2. A concession scheme for people who have to travel regularly but have problems to meet the costs,
    3. A more cleverly worked out inter-island flight timetable to enable commuters who cannot work from home to reach their workplace for normal business hours attendance,
    3. Finally a (fibre-optic) cable based decent digital connectivity* which supports businesses, education etc.

    *If this is possible for Svalbard (Spitsbergen) which is a tad more remote than our isles… it could be done here!

    This would save costs (smaller modern energy efficient fleet required, reduced financial impacts due to abandonment of ferry fare reductions), not hit the most vulnerable most and safeguard the ongoing existence of locally based shops.

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