Plans for Shetland to build a dual-purpose cargo and passenger ship to improve NorthLink’s service and start a summer service to Norway have won enthusiastic backing from some members of the local transport authority ZetTrans.
The idea, which has been generated by ZetTrans, involves a funding body such as Shetland Charitable Trust’s property company Slap paying to build the ship and profiting by leasing it to NorthLink, or whoever takes over the North Boat contract in 2012.
The future operator of a Norway link would be able to sub-lease the 150-passenger ship, perhaps two days a week. The Shetland group Norshukon has been looking into starting such a freight and passenger service to Bergen.
The concept of building a ship as an investment for others to use is what NorthLink followed with the Royal Bank of Scotland to provide its three newest ships Hjaltland, Hrossey and Hamnavoe.
But the government-owned shipping company failed to persuade ministers in 2007 that it should be allowed to buy a newer cargo ship to replace one of its freighters Hascosay or Clare, which are over 30 years old. The ships have restrictions on space, high running costs and difficulties getting spares.
A new purpose-built ship provided by Shetland would improve the cargo service and help solve the problem of too few passenger cabins on the Hjaltland and Hrossey at peak times as well as being able to stand in for the big ships when one is out of action for refit or repair.
At Monday’s ZetTrans meeting, transport operations manager Ken Duerden said the venture could become a very safe investment, generating profits to help fund other projects for Shetland.
The Scottish Government has been approached about helping fund the ship but it said it had limited funds with none likely to be available for such a project, although Mr Duerden said transport minister Stewart Stevenson has indicated support and is allowing his officials to have talks with ZetTrans.
SIC councillor Caroline Miller said the ship was an excellent idea. “It is a very logical way to go forward. It is something that is going to be of enormous benefit to Shetland.”
Lerwick Port Authority chief executive Sandra Laurenson said it was absolutely the best project she had seen coming forward from ZetTrans and could prove to be a better way of earning money from Shetland’s community funds than the interest from its stock market investments. “I think it’s tremendous. I can’t think of any downside.”
Slap has already met in private to discuss the idea informally and there was considerable resistance from trustee-councillors to the prospect of such a big investment with a windfarm and new high school also likely to fall on company’s lap. That was reflected on Monday by the views of councillors Iris Hawkins and Josie Simpson who were cautious in their response to the proposal.
Mr Simpson has experience of investments in shipping not coming off the way they were meant to and, coincidentally, is off to Faroe at the weekend to attend the annual meeting of Smyril Line to hear the latest on the performance of Shetland’s dwindling investment in the company, which enabled Smyril to build the Norröna.
ZetTrans chairman Allan Wishart said building a ship for Shetland was an interesting concept but it was early days and progress would be reported back to the authority as it happens.
Mr Duerden revealed that the proposed ship might be designed to be powered by liquid natural gas (LNG), which is cheaper, cleaner and more efficient than diesel. The technology is currently being developed to allow bigger ships like cargo and passenger ships to use the fuel.