By NEIL RIDDELL
NORTHLINK is pressing ahead with plans to introduce couchettes on its two passenger ferries sailing between Lerwick and Aberdeen.
The proposal is for 32 couchettes, a form of non-private sleeping accommodation most commonly found on trains in the United States, to be installed in areas of the Hjaltland and the Hrossey which are currently used for reclining seats. Some of those seats would be moved to elsewhere on the vessels.
The company’s commercial director Cynthia Spencer told a meeting of Shetland’s external transport forum that NorthLink had received a “very positive response” to the idea and was now collating its findings, though she was not yet in a position to say what the cost of booking a couchette would be.
Two years ago the company built an extra 22 cabins on each ferry following a host of complaints over a shortage of berths at peak times. There are a total of 117 four and two-berth cabins providing a total of 356 berths for passengers.
During the forum on Wednesday afternoon, members raised their concern at the prospect of losing one of the boats for up to three weeks next spring when Scrabster-Stromness passenger ship the Hamnavoe goes into dry dock to repair a damaged stabiliser.
Ms Spencer said the plan was for the repairs – which may involve the ship being sent to Denmark – to take place sometime after the Easter school holidays, while the Hjaltland and Hrossey are likely to go into dry dock themselves sometime in February. Councillor and tour operator Jonathan Wills said that given the isles’ tourist industry was trying to build up a shoulder season for visitors, taking sailings away at those times was unhelpful and that, compared to Orkney, Shetland had “remarkably few” sailings to the mainland. “We can’t get cabins on the boat for Orcadians,” he said. “Much as we love Orcadians, we would like our own boat please.”
There was also a clamour from various quarters for direct sailings between Shetland and Aberdeen seven nights a week and for the introduction of shuttle sailing.
Local businesses and others have often advocated a more regular introduction of shuttle sailings with shorter turnaround times during peak seasons and councillor Robert Henderson said he saw no reason why such a service couldn’t be provided, even for one day a week.
Ms Spencer said it was not something NorthLink was examining at present, though if an official request from ZetTrans was forthcoming they would look into it. She said the business case would come down to demand and the additional costs for crew and fuel.
Meanwhile, Ms Spencer said the livestock season, completed at the end of October, had been “very successful” with 84,000 sheep, 9,000 cattle and 200 horses shipped – much higher numbers than in 2007, though those numbers were skewed because of the foot and mouth crisis.
Councillor and crofter Jim Budge said NorthLink deserved “congratulations” for how well they had performed this year. His only concern was that the cost of shipping animals in half-empty cages during off-peak times could be prohibitively expensive as the charge is levied per metre rather than per head. “It’s something we have to look at again,” he said.