Future Ferries: A View From The Islands

Scotland’s ferries seem to be very much in the news of late. Tory MSPs in Scotland are so interested in the building of ferries that they are unable to comment on the state of the UK economy, proposed cuts to our public services and an appalling ‘hate’ speech made at their Conference by their very own The Rt Hon Suella Braverman KC MP.

Scotland has a complex mixture of ferries and providers – let’s look at Orkney.

Ferries to Mainland Scotland are provided by Northlink Ferries (Operated by Serco) and Pentland Ferries (Family owned and operated by Andrew Banks).

There is also a summer season ferry (passenger only) John O Groats Ferry ( owned and operated by Deborah Fermor and family).

Northlink Ferries also provides a connection from Orkney to Shetland – and from Shetland to mainland Scotland.

Islanders get a discount when travelling funded by the Scottish Government, and there is a concessionary travel Saltire Card which gives two return trips free for the pass carrier. In the Western Isles there is RET (Road Equivalent Tariff) which provides cheaper ferry fares for everyone using the ferries to and from mainland Scotland. This has not yet been introduced in Orkney apparently because documentation from some of the ferry providers has not been provided. A sort of compromise has been reached because that provider does not sail to Shetland.

Within Orkney there are interisland ferries – and again these have a mixture of providers. Orkney Islands Council decided many years ago to take over the running of Orkney Ferries which provide the lifeline vital links between Orkneys’ islands. Since then OIC have been pleading with the Scottish Government for more funding for the inter island ferries which the council runs.

Varagen Orkney Ferries

Responsibility for the inter-island services was transferred to Orkney Islands Council from 1 April 1987. This was achieved by the Council acquiring the share capital of the company and an agreement on the acquisition of the vessels as noted in the minutes of the Orkney Islands Shipping company on 24 July 1986

Background to Transfer of Responsibility for Orkney Ferry Services to OIC

On 28 November 2017, the Policy and Resources Committee of OIC recommended that responsibility of Orkney’s inter island ferry services be passed to Transport Scotland. This was rejected by Orkney Islands Council.

If the Scottish Government was to take responsibility for Orkney’s interisland ferry services, there would be an adjustment to to the Scottish Government’s local government block grant because a large portion of that goes towards the council’s ferry service.

In recent years the purchase of The Nordic Sea by OIC to replace the Golden Mariana was hailed by the then Chair of the Development and Infrastructure Committee, Graham Sinclair, as an excellent vessel for the route between Westray and Papa Westray. He said on 3rd of March 2020:

“This appears to be an excellent vessel and will be a significant improvement on the Mariana in terms of her age, reliability, comfort and accessibility for passengers. While I am pleased that the Scottish Government is part funding the purchase, this must only be seen as a first step. Our entire fleet of ferries is ageing and needs to be replaced – but with no sign, so far, of any further support for this from the Government. I find it astonishing that the Government will fully fund ferry services in Argyll and Bute over the year ahead – and pay for a replacement ferry – while Orkney continues to be treated unfairly. Unlike the Government, this council is fully committed to supporting Orkney’s most remote and vulnerable communities – as this purchase clearly shows.”

The Nordic Sea in April 2022, in Stromness

The Scottish Government handed over 50% of the £1.5million funding costs of the Nordic Sea project (at that time). Since then the Nordic Sea has never been fully operational and has been beset with additional costs to the vessel ( including £95,700 2021 refit to MacDuff Shipyards Ltd) and extra training required for seafarers operating the ferry.

Orkney’s ferries are a lifeline service, but they are also an ageing fleet. And whilst all media attention turns on the soaring costs of the building of new ferries at Fergusson Marine which saved that shipyard from closure and the loss of hundreds of jobs – what about the interisland ferries in Orkney which need replaced?

Let’s turn our eyes north and look at what other island communities are doing – building electric ferries.

We have covered this before in The Orkney News but in Denmark, the Ellen (fully electric) has now been running successfully between the islands of Ærø and Als in Southern Denmark for several years (first voyage August 2019) and has paid back the higher investment it required at the start.

The Ellen is not only fully electric, the islanders in Ærø came together and invested. This cooperatively locally owned project uses as its source of energy the wind turbines on the island. The Ellen, a 750 ton ferry, is quieter – less noise and vibration – passengers are happy to use it and it produces 25,000 tons CO2 less a year than a conventional diesel ferry. The sail is even 10 minutes faster than it was with the diesel ferry.

Fully electric ferries (and hybrids) are proven technology. We know this works. As the price of batteries falls and renewable energy is used – electric ferries become the cheaper and more reliable alternative.

What is key, however, is Infrastructure. And that is what the island of Ærø in Denmark and the other Nordic nations have put in place, but which we in Orkney , and in Scotland, do not have.

Without the infrastructure to provide overnight cheaper charging, and faster charging between journeys, we cannot move forward with decarbonising our marine services.

And it’s not just ferries. Container ships are vital, not just for island communities, but for all nations, importing and exporting a huge variety of goods.

The “Yara Birkeland will be the world’s first fully electric and autonomous container ship, with zero emissions. With this vessel, Yara will reduce diesel-powered truck haulage by 40,000 journeys a year.”

Moving beyond the issue of ferry transport we can also look at future flight options and developments across the world are happening to decarbonise that too. At ZeroAvia, aviation is being developed which uses 100% green hydrogen. These future aircraft have zero emissions, lower noise and will be significantly cheaper to operate than the aircraft we have today. The developers also say that connectivity between islands will be improved and because of reduced costs, routes will open up which are currently not viable.

Another solution is being put forward by developers of a ‘Sea Glider’ in Hawaii at Regent. This new mode of transport is really a boat but looks like an aeroplane, combining the best features of both of those.

Again key to all of the above future transport possibilities and opportunities for islands is infrastructure. So that is where massive investment requires to be made.

If you would like to know about the above subjects click onto the Virtual Islands YouTube film ‘Bringing Islands Closer Together by Providing Affordable and Sustainable Travel Options’ to hear the presentations from the developers.

Fiona Grahame