The road equivalent tariff (RET) pilot scheme under which the Government has introduced lower ferry fares on routes to the Western Isles has attracted 23 per cent more cars and 14 per cent more passengers compared with last year.
The figures came in an interim report into the £22 million, three-year project, which ministers have suggested could be a forerunner to similar schemes to all the remote islands but which critics have attacked as unnecessarily delaying the advent of cheaper fares for all.
Isles MSP Tavish Scott said the figures were hardly a surprise and immediately called on transport minister Stewart Stevenson to cut the cost of travel on all lifeline routes.
However a closer look at the figures suggests that without the retention of the islander discount the introduction of this particular scheme, under which cars are charged a flat rate of £5 and then 60p a mile, would make travel south more expensive.
During the peak season (July and August) with the islander discount it costs £84.70 to take a car one way between Lerwick and Aberdeen. Without the discount the cost is £121. Under the RET in operation to the Western Isles, it would cost £119.
The routes included in the pilot are Oban-Castlebay/Lochboisedale, where the number of cars is up 26 per cent, passengers 19 per cent; Uig-Tarbert/Lochmaddy, cars up 25 per cent, passengers 16 per cent; Ullapool-Stornoway, cars up 24 per cent, passengers 13 per cent; Oban-Coll/Tiree, cars up 13 per cent, passengers eight per cent.
First Minister Alex Salmond said: “The Scottish Government is committed to ensuring all remote and fragile communities have direct links to the greater Scottish economy.
“We launched the RET pilot to consider the most effective and sustainable way to improve the affordability of service of ferries to our islands. Since the launch of the pilot last year, we have seen a significant increase in the number of visitors, family and friends and businesses visiting the Western Isles.”
He added: “These positive, early signs, particularly the economic benefits, will continue to be closely monitored through our study of the pilot so we can fully evaluate the impacts of RET. We have had substantive feedback already and we are particularly keen to hear more from the business community on what impact RET has had on their organisations.
“I can give all Scottish islanders the assurance that we remain absolutely committed to ensuring the necessary transport links at affordable prices. This will enable greater connections, socially, culturally and economically with mainland Scotland.”
However, in a letter to Mr Stevenson Mr Scott said the results raised the question of whether there was any point continuing with the pilot, which was “giving one island group an unfair competitive advantage over the others”.
“It has demonstrated that lower fares encourage people to travel, something that is hardly a surprise. Instead, what funding is available to reduce ferry fares on our lifeline routes should now be shared out between all island routes.
“Some of the extra business could be tourists who otherwise would have travelled to the Northern Isles but were tempted by the cheaper fares to the Western Isles.
“That is why I believe that the funding for the pilot should now be shared out and used to reduce ferry fares on all lifeline routes. I want the good news for the Western Isles to be good news for Shetland as well.”