Efforts are being made to track down a suitable charter ferry to ease the growing logjam on the Whalsay route. The Skerries ferry Filla may also be brought in at peak times to alleviate the queues of traffic.
The moves were revealed by council transport manager Michael Craigie at the infrastructure committee on Tuesday to defuse councillors’ mounting irritation at what they see as a lack of action to address the island’s ferries problems.
Mr Craigie insisted nobody was sitting around. “It is all hands to the pumps to try to address what we know is a growing problem,” he said.
He had just listened to several members complain that solving Whalsay’s problem seemed lost alongside the other major task of finding funding to build tunnels to the isles. The infrastructure committee had just been told that surveys of the crumbling Whalsay ferry terminals to determine what remedial action is required would not be completed until next year.
Whalsay’s problem was raised, for the umpteenth time, by the Whalsay-resident councillor Josie Simpson who said the queues had been made worse by the closure of the island’s salmon factory, which means more people commuting to find work. Now the Linga’s passenger capacity has been cut from 95 to 50 during the winter. She has been penalised on safety grounds until modifications are carried out next year to increase buoyancy in the event of hull damage.
Councillor Laura Baisley said the Whalsay community had been left in a “horrendous” state of limbo with no information forthcoming as to a possible solution. Alastair Cooper said councillors kept hearing about the problems but not the solutions, although he was quickly accused by Allan Wishart of being part of the problem, having led the bid to stop new terminals and a ferry being built in favour of looking into tunnels.
Mr Simpson is becoming increasingly worried that tunnels are pie in the sky because the UK is broke. Last week’s visit by Scottish finance secretary John Swinney merely confirmed that suspicion “loud and clear” to the vice-convener with 2025 now looking like the earliest recovery time for government spending. “There is just no money available,” Mr Simpson said.
Andrew Hughson agreed, asking why the council was going down avenues which had no hope of money in them.
Early next year looks set to be the time for historic decisions to be made. The council will meet Scottish ministers again to give more details about its tunnel dreams in the hope that funding might be pledged. Councillors will also hear whether the search elsewhere for funds has found a pot of gold which would then allow them to sit down and decide in what order they should be built.
Otherwise it will be back to a future of ever-larger ferries with particular urgency in returning to the process of building new terminals and a super-ferry for Whalsay.
Betty Fullerton wanted the working group to be allowed to get on with its quest for tunnel money and not be put off just because “John Swinney’s pockets are empty”.
When convener Sandy Cluness suggested leasing a ferry several other councillors were falling over themselves to put forward the same idea. He said there must be a few spare ships around given that other places have been replacing them with fixed links.
Cue an intervention from Robert Henderson, the former owner of hauliers RS Henderson, with his familiar refrain that building bigger ferries for Yell Sound instead of tunnels was one of the most regrettable things the council had ever done.