Reliable Ferries & Fixed Links: Scotland’s Future Transport Needs

The  Net Zero, Energy & Transport Committee of the Scottish Parliament has been examining Scotland’s ferry services. On a recent visit to Orkney convener of the committee, Edward Mountain MSP, met with islanders to widen the number of respondents to the Inquiry.

The Call for Views summary has now been published.

The main issue for people was cancellations which can happen very quickly and cause immense disruption to personal and business plans.

Not surprisingly the solutions put forward to poor reliability were a rolling programme of ferry replacements and fixed links where appropriate by bridges or tunnels.

The cost of travel was also an issue for many islanders.

All of the key points raised are familiar to ferry users including what happens to the service when the regular ferry goes into dry dock, the lack of space on the vessels during the peak travel times in the summer months, and for those travelling overnight from either Shetland or Orkney, the lack of appropriate accommodation for that journey.

The cost of running services and who should do so prompted a substantial response from Orkney Islands Council. The OIC runs the inter island ferry services through Orkney Ferries, a decision councillors took decades ago as they wanted to retain control of running the ferries. The existing ferry fleet is an aging one and the recent acquisition by the Council of The Nordic Sea was a complete failure and waste of public money. The funding of ferries operated by Orkney Ferries is done through a combination of council and Scottish Government funding.

The argument put forward by OIC is summarised below:

“The Scottish Government should set a benchmark level of service for council run services (Could be RSM1 , or a new standard) and provide specific grant funding to the councils to fully fund that level of service. Any service provided above the benchmark should be unfunded by Scottish Government. The benchmark should cover fare levels so that there is equity across Scotland’s island communities.

It should be acknowledged that the Scottish Government (Specific Grant) revenue funding provided to local authorities over the past three years to run ferry services has been critical in maintaining services. The Scottish Government must also provide a mechanism to fund the replacement of the council run ferry fleets. This should be based on a comprehensive assessment of the fleet with funding directed at the highest priority vessels first.

Whilst a Ferry Replacement Programme is in place for much of the Clyde and Hebrides Ferry Service (CHFS) which is fully funded by Scottish Government, there is currently no commitment of similar funding to replace Orkney’s ferry fleet, many of which are in imminent need of replacement, despite the service now being fully revenue funded by Scottish Government.”

Many people and politicians in Orkney are also very keen on RET (Road Equivalent Tariff) being put in place for the Islands. Although fares are subsidised for islanders, with a discount, it is felt by those who argue for RET in Orkney that not having it is holding back visitor traffic.

In islands where there is RET on the West Coast routes the view is somewhat different.

“The Road Equivalent Tarriff (RET) fares scheme should be reviewed, as the growth in ferry usage it has encouraged (particularly by tourists) has not been accompanied by an increase in carrying capacity. This means islanders, or people living in remote mainland communities, often cannot access services at short notice during peak times. Some respondents suggested that RET fares (or some other form of discount) should only be available to islanders and people living in remote mainland communities” Summary of Written Evidence

The public also stressed in their responses to the committee their support for the work of the crews of Scotland’s ferry services.

image credit Kenny Armet