Views on the government’s proposed £1 million cuts to NorthLink’s service are being sought as a matter of urgency as the islands seek to defend the lifeline ferry connection.
Due to the lack of time available to respond the local transport agency ZetTrans is using the internet to seek opinions from the community and gather ideas for alternative ways of making savings from NorthLink.
The website address is www.zettrans.org.uk/consultation/ Northlink.asp and the deadline for emailed contributions to firstname.lastname@example.org is Sunday 28th March.
The information will help in compiling the official response to transport minister Stewart Stevenson’s demand that the passenger ferries Hjaltland and Hrossey reduce power from four to two engines to save £300,000 in fuel, making crossings via Orkney up to one-and-a-half hours slower.
A potentially more damaging but as-yet unclear second proposal is that one of the passenger ships be removed from service during the entire winter period to save money.
In an effort to accommodate the engine power changes NorthLink has proposed a timetable for the sailings calling at Orkney which involves leaving Aberdeen at 3.30pm instead of the current 5pm departure, arriving at Lerwick at the current timetabled time of 7.30am.
Going south, the boat via Orkney would leave Lerwick at 5pm instead of 5.30pm, getting in at 7.30am instead of the current time of 7am. The direct Aberdeen-Lerwick link is not affected by the new times which would come in on 4th May – one month later than the government had initially demanded of NorthLink.
A concession which has been since the cut was first announced is that when a ship is running late, due to unavoidable circumstances such a bad weather, NorthLink will be allowed to fire up the other two engines to make up time.
The proposals were savaged by industry representatives at a meeting of the Shetland’s external transport forum on Friday, particularly by the fishing and fish farming industry and haulage firms.
Karl Simpson of fish exporters Simpson & Ward called for the cuts and restrictions to be rejected out of hand. He said there was not enough time to prepare fish to catch earlier sailings from Lerwick. “It is going to cost the economy many more millions in future if our way of working is undermined by a nuisance cut.”
Shetland Aquaculture general manager David Sandison said the Lerwick-Aberdeen ferry was Shetland’s motorway and the only way to get goods to market and that had to be put across repeatedly to government.
Councillor Allan Wishart branded the proposals a “knee-jerk reaction” to the national spending squeeze which was shunting the community very quickly into a corner. He called for more time to react and urged people with concerns to contact MSP Tavish Scott.
Another call was made at the meeting for NorthLink to save money by stopping its Shetland ships calling at Orkney rather than having to steam more slowly. Some industry representatives said the Orkney community had ample lifeline links with the Scottish mainland through the competing ferry crossings to Caithness.
Hamish Balfour of Shetland Transport said the Orkney connection was at Shetland’s expense – the ship had to reserve space for Orkney freight, which meant Shetland lost out. In total, Orkney enjoyed 95 sailings a week, he said, whereas Shetland had 24 or 25.
There was also a call for the government’s required £1 million savings to be found entirely from the Orkney end of the service because of the far more frequent sailings provided between Orkney and the mainland.
Shetland Islands Tourism chairman Steve Henry said there was already a private operator on the route who has apparently said he could take passengers free if he got the same level of government subsidy given to NorthLink.
Former NorthLink commercial manager Gareth Crichton, who now works for Streamline, said the government’s proposed changes were “crazy” and while they might make some savings the potential loss of revenue was unknown, including from coach tour operators who would not find the new timetable attractive.
The possibility that fares and freight charges might be put up, by just 1.6 per cent extra or 55p for a passenger, £2 for a car and £9 for a cargo trailer, was roundly rejected by the freight sector, including the fish farming and whitefish sectors, which argued that they would lose their competitiveness with rivals down south.
There continues to be uncertainty about how long the “winter” period will run when only one passenger ship is in service between Aberdeen and Lerwick and what would happen during the peak period around Christmas and New Year when passenger numbers soar.
Sports and recreation groups could also be badly hit by fewer and earlier sailings in winter which could prevent people, such as Shetland Rugby Club, taking part in competitions.