By RYAN TAYLOR
FERRY chiefs attempted to allay fears this week that passenger vessels to the mainland would struggle to cope with extra freight once this autumn’s livestock shipping season gets underway.
NorthLink’s chief Bill Davidson said paying passengers should not miss out when crofters and farmers send around 100,000 sheep to the mainland in October.
The chairman of transport partnership Zetrans, Allan Wishart, had raised the concerns while giving evidence at the Scottish Parliament’s ferries inquiry in April.
The committee heard that a huge demand for space on freight vessels over a three month time-frame could mean normal freight would have to go on the passenger ships, leaving less room for cars.
The issue was flagged up again after NorthLink began studying options for replacing its two ageing freight ships – the Clare and the Hascosay – which have both been working for three decades.
A letter from transport minister Stewart Stevenson to Shetland MSP Tavish Scott highlights a need to replace the vessels.
But with or without new ships, Mr Davidson said new livestock containers would help alleviate any problem with capacity – although he admitted space would be tight.
“There’s no doubt that the autumn peak livestock season of September and October, which is crucial to the economic well-being of Orkney and Shetland, places additional strain on the ferry services,” he said.
“We’re aware of the capacity concerns which have been expressed and have sought to offer assurances to freight and livestock customers that all that is possible is being done to ensure that the peak livestock season proceeds without these strains impacting upon them.
“Clearly with the added volume of livestock containers during the peak season the ships’ car decks are going to be fuller than usual.
“We will do all we can to accommodate the booking requests of our many car, freight and livestock customers but there is no doubt the overall space will be tight.”
Speaking to The Shetland Times on Wednesday, Mr Wishart said he was uncertain a backlog could be avoided.
“The point I raised [at the ferries inquiry] was that it could impact badly with freight having to go on passenger ships,” he said.
“I’ve been assured that wouldn’t happen, although I’m not so sure about that during the October break.”
His comments were backed by Mr Scott, who said he was “particularly concerned” by the possible pressure on bookings during this year’s October holidays.
“NorthLink has been right to point out the potential challenges for people trying to book away with their car,” he said.
“Yet freight has to continue to move, particularly exporting fresh fish and salmon. The long term solution is for new, larger freight ships.”
The news follows the release of the findings of the ferries inquiry report last Friday.
It proposes a long term strategy to deliver a modernised and more responsive ferry network.
ZetTrans network development manager Ken Duerden said he was pleased many of the points raised during the inquiry’s hearing at Lerwick Town Hall had been dealt with by the committee.
But he said while MSPs had taken on board the need to upgrade inter-island ferries, they had offered no suggestion on how to pay for it.
He added it was unlikely the SIC would be able to fund the project without some form of government help.
“Under the previous government there was funding that could be applied for, but we are not sure what the options are, or how we can go about funding the replacement of our ferries,” he said.
“It doesn’t seem to give any answers. It recognises a need for investment, but doesn’t make clear where that might come from.”
During the inquiry the committee heard from chairman of Yell Community Council, Daniel Thomson.
In his evidence Mr Thomson said the average age of vessel operated by the inter-island ferry service was over 16 years and the oldest unit was 33.
He said the ferries were designed for a 20 to 25 year working life, with many of the ferry terminals reaching the end of their design life and in a poor state of repair.
Mr Thomson told MSPs this was predominantly due to handling ferries considerably larger and heavier than those they were designed for.
Mr Duerden also shared Mr Wishart’s fears concerning the freight ferries to Aberdeen, maintaining planned replacements were badly needed.
“The head height in the Clare is certainly a problem. She can’t take particularly high vehicles,” he said.
“The concern is these vessels are so old they can’t keep going indefinitely.”
Mr Duerden did welcome other parts of the report and said he was glad the committee had taken on board his comments concerning the controversial road equivalent tariff (RET) scheme, which was introduced in a pilot scheme in the Western Isles, but not in Shetland, earlier this year.
Giving evidence himself at the hearing Mr Duerden had said potential visitors might be tempted to island locations where RET was in use because they believed they might get a better deal.
“Overall I welcome the fact the committee came to Shetland to take evidence, and they picked up a lot of things we made representation to them on,” he said.
But he said the government’s own ferries review, which will begin later this year, needed to make good progress if passengers were to see improvements in the near future.
“One good thing that has come out of this is that it urges the government to complete its ferries review quickly so it can be fed into the 2012 NorthLink tender.”