By RYAN TAYLOR
PLANS for a new freight ferry service linking Shetland with Norway have been delayed until next year, following a hitch in securing a European cash injection.
Businessman John White had hoped to make Shetland a cargo hub for Europe by the end of this year when he unveiled his plans to provide a “motorway of the sea”, taking tonnes of freight away from Europe’s crowded road network.
Earlier this year the former marine civil engineer announced plans to operate a cargo ship between Kristiansund and Lerwick, with connections to Orkney, Aberdeen and Scrabster through the existing NorthLink service.
A second, larger ship was also planned to run between Kristiansund, Zeebrugge and Rosyth.
The nature of the venture gave rise to the name Norshukon – an acronym of Norway, Shetland, UK and onwards.
Mr White had pinned his hopes on securing funding from the European Marco Polo fund to help him buy a cargo vessel he had his eye on.
Following a lengthy delay in August, to allow for European summer holidays, Mr White has now learned the application was unsuccessful.
But the news has not dented his business ambitions.
Mr White said he was told by European officials to withdraw projected cargo figures for the route between Zeebrugge and Rosyth, for fear he would clash with an existing service run by Superfast.
Complying with that request meant his total projected cargo dropped below a required threshold for the funding to be put in place.
However, just weeks after submitting his application in April, Superfast withdrew from the route.
Since then, and following key discussions with transport representatives in Europe and the UK, Mr White has been advised to submit a revised application in January next year.
“As soon as we got notification that it was being defeated we spoke to the department of transport people in London and Brussels, and they were upbeat about it.
“We got 99 per cent of the way and just had one box to tick, which they couldn’t tick, and this was to do with the quantity of freight we would carry.”
The setback meant Mr White had to let go the vessel he hoped to buy.
Instead, he plans to launch the service with one, single, more fuel efficient vessel.
“The vessel I was looking at was comparatively modern, but it still wasn’t as fuel efficient as the new ones being produced nowadays.
“The new vessel I was planning to introduce to the route later in 2009 will be the vessel which I now propose to start the route with.”
Mr White said he planned to see how the new vessel coped with demand before re-examining the possibility of buying a second freight ship.
He said he was unsure as yet whether the vessel would cover the Lerwick-Kristiansund leg, or travel between Rosyth and Zeebrugge.
“It’s ironic really, because poor old Rosyth is losing out a huge amount in the meantime.”
Norshukon’s four partners are Møregruppen AS, Shetland Development Trust, Shetland’s Transport partnership ZetTrans and its south Scotland equivalent SEStran.
The Shetland Development Trust has already put £50,000 into a feasibility study for the project.
ZetTrans network development manager, Ken Duerden, said the delay could work out for better in the long run for Mr White.
“Things are looking good and we should get the funding through next time,” he said.
“It’s unfortunate that we had the delay, but we still have high hopes that we will be able to get the service up and running next year.”
He added Mr White would now see the benefit of using a more fuel efficient vessel, particularly in light of rising fuel prices.
SEStran chairman Russell Imrie said his transport authority remained committed to the project.
“We are naturally disappointed at the delay, but it was impossible to foresee that Superfast would withdraw from the Rosyth-Zeebrugge route.
“This presents issues of competition, which John White could not account for in their application.”
Møregruppen chairman Rolf Kare Sether said he hoped to see the project come to fruition soon.
“Like John White we are bitterly disappointed that we will not be seeing a service starting up this year.
“We remain fully committed to the project and the project partners will continue to support John as he prepares to resubmit his proposal in January.”
Based in Shetland for over 30 years, Mr White was the name behind Whites Coaches in 1975.
He has also been a pioneering figure in Shetland’s salmon farming industry, forging ahead with the successful Kergord hatchery in 1982, before the business went into receivership 10 years later and was taken over by Paul Featherstone.