Councillors representing islands with ferries are increasingly frustrated by the length of time being taken to pursue their dream of free ferry travel which could help breathe new life into struggling communities.
On Thursday they showed their growing impatience with slow progress in completing detailed studies of the issues affecting users of each ferry route, which are intended to bring about a complex new fares structure tailored to the different needs.
Bressay folk will get cheaper fares first because of their dependence on Lerwick for basic services and jobs, followed next by a study of the needs of Whalsay then the Yell Sound ferry users.
Council transport head Michael Craigie told the inter-island ferries board his report on a new fares structure would only be ready towards the end of this financial year due to staff shortages in his department.
Councillor Alastair Cooper warned that this meant any reduced fares system, or free fares, would not be able to take effect until the financial year 2011-2012.
What most members of the board really want is free fares, preferably now, or at least significant cuts of around 50 per cent and some see the ongoing studies as a time-consuming obstacle in their way.
Ferry fares only bring in about £1.2 million a year and doing away with them could cost the council considerably less because a sizeable chunk of the takings are from SIC vehicles anyway, and vehicles belonging to local organisations which are funded by the council.
A sense of realism was brought back to the chamber by Frank Robertson who warned colleagues they needed to have patience and complete the full study so that they had “a very reasoned argument” to put before other councillors.
Josie Simpson was frustrated by the wait but said the study was also needed to help lobby the Scottish Government, which, as board chairman Robert Henderson keeps pointing out, famously abolished tolls on all Scottish bridges but for some reason not on ferries.
Meanwhile, the council is battling with the Maritime and Coastguard Agency (MCA) over its claim that the Whalsay ferry Linga must be extensively and expensively modified to comply with safety regulations.
All ferries built after 1998 have to meet standards relating to damage stability, measures which resulted from the lessons learnt in the Estonia disaster in the Baltic.
Councillors were told the regulations only came in two years after the Linga was built but the MCA, although happy at the time, is now claiming it must comply.
The ferries board has been warned: “Remedial modifications, if feasible, to Linga would be costly and with a significant time out of service.”
Whalsay member Josie Simpson supported the council’s stance in taking on the MCA, saying it would be “a complete and utter disaster” for the island if the ferry had to be taken away and rebuilt.
Isles MP Alistair Carmichael is to be asked to intervene.