NorthLink’s ferries between Shetland and Aberdeen are to leave approximately an hour earlier than at present and run on half power in an effort to cut down on fuel costs, it has emerged following a surprise announcement by the Scottish government.
Discussions will also be held between the transport minister Stewart Stevenson and NorthLink bosses over potential reductions in the number of sailings in the quieter winter months, a proposal already firmly rejected by businesses in the isles.
It was evident after Mr Stevenson’s statement on Tuesday that NorthLink had not been informed in advance of the government’s decision. A spokesman for the company said: “NorthLink provides ferry services in accordance with an operating contract awarded by the Scottish government. The government are entitled to make whatever changes they wish to the terms of that contract and require us to implement them, which is what we will now do.”
Details of the new NorthLink timetable will now be thrashed out and an announcement is expected within the next few days, but it is understood that to maintain the current arrival time while operating on two engines instead of four Hjaltland and Hrossey will have to leave at 4pm when sailing via Kirkwall and 6pm on the direct route.
The NorthLink spokesman added that in relation to opportunities for savings during the winter, discussions would now take place and, again, an announcement would be made in due course.
Mr Stevenson’s statement provoked an angry response from Shetland MSP Tavish Scott, who said: “Fundamental changes to the timetable, as it seems are being threatened, would have to be subjected to a full consultation. To make changes without this would be totally wrong. But, of course, if they consulted on changes along the lines hinted they would discover them to be about as popular as the proposal to introduce parking charges at Sumburgh.
“The Aberdeen to Lerwick route is Shetland’s vital economic and social lifeline. Now it looks as if they are seeking to cut some of our winter sailings. When that was proposed as a trade-off against extra summer crossings it was soundly rejected in Shetland, and Shetland will be in no more of a mood to accept it if it is proposed again.
“As for timetable changes, this can only mean either earlier departures or later arrivals, neither of which would be acceptable to Shetland businesses or to most passengers. The transport minister’s constituents can drive in and out of his constituency any time they want. Shetland residents and businesses have one equivalent service each way each day. The least we can expect is that it is maintained and that it runs when we need it to run.”
Mr Stevenson said: “The Scottish government is responding positively to the very real challenges on public spending which are facing us. We are taking decisions which will allow us to maintain the efficient ferry services which the public currently enjoy.
“We are committed to ensuring all remote and fragile communities are linked into the wider Scottish economy.”
The Scottish government is providing £103.1m in the current financial year for ferry services and £105.0m in the next financial year.
Shetland Islands Council’s executive director of infrastructure services Gordon Greenhill said he was disappointed there had been no prior consultation and would be taking the matter up with the government and the local government umbrella body Cosla.