Transport minister Stewart Stevenson has been accused of “picking Shetlanders’ pockets” for carrying forward a fuel price surcharge applied to fares on the north boats.
When oil prices reached their peak last summer Mr Stevenson announced that NorthLink fares for 2009 would increase by 3.8 per cent – a combination of the consumer prices index (CPI) which was running at 3.3 per cent and an extra 0.5 per cent for fuel.
Now he has declared that fares for 2010 will rise by 2.2 per cent in line with the CPI, thus carrying forward the surcharge.
Furious isles MSP Tavish Scott, who failed to get the minister to remove the surcharge when oil prices fell and insists the extra charge was made against the advice of officials, said: “This is all about the Scottish Government taking money out of Shetlanders’ pockets, and out of the pockets of all others who use the NorthLink service.
“The extra profits made by NorthLink last year, thanks to the minister’s extra 0.5 per cent, flowed back to the government. It is clear … that [the minister] wants to pick our pockets again next year.”
Mr Scott said the surcharge, which was not applied to ferry services to the Western Isles currently participating in a three-year road tariff equivalent (RET) pilot scheme, said the most the increase should be next year is 1.7 per cent, the CPI with the 0.5 per cent surcharge deducted.
He made the discovery about next year’s fares when he wrote to the minister recently asking him to put right last year’s wrong.
“As you will be aware,” he wrote, “the cost of oil is now well below the peak of last year. In addition, I understand that NorthLink has switched to using a heavier, cheaper fuel, so the 0.5 per cent surcharge was not needed, something also demonstrated by NorthLink’s profits.”
In his reply Mr Stevenson said the same percentage increase will apply to ferry fares to the Western Isles which, Mr Scott said, “not only suffered no fuel surcharge increase last year, they didn’t go up at all”.
Meanwhile, an increase in the number of islanders travelling south on the boat contributed to a substantial hike in NorthLink passenger numbers in July.
The ferry operator said an extra 1,300 people used its passenger vessels last month compared with the same period last year.
It puts the 8.9 per cent increase down to Shetland residents choosing to travel by boat when they head down to the mainland. Passenger numbers travelling from Aberdeen to Lerwick, meanwhile, have “remained stable”.
The news came just days after a key tourism figure warned the travel sector was being “throttled” because of NorthLink’s summer sailing schedule.
On Friday chairman of the island’s tourism association Steve Henry said extra summer sailings were crucial to help combat inadequate cabin space on the Hjaltland and Hrossey.
However NorthLink insisted the satisfaction rate among passengers has remained positive. “From our own survey results we continue to receive positive feedback from customers, which is very much in line with the recent ZetTrans study which showed that 71 per cent of Shetland residents described their NorthLink experience as good or very good,” a spokesman said.
“Additionally the study found that, in relation to their most recent trip, over 95 per cent of Shetlanders were able to travel on their preferred sailing and almost 96 per cent of residents sailing to Aberdeen occupied a cabin.
“While we never rest on our laurels, and always keen to do more, we are pleased that the service we are currently providing seems to find favour with the majority of islanders.
“The increase seems to reflect the greater number of islanders who are choosing to travel with us, while the number of visitors travelling in the month, compared to the same month last year, has remained stable.”