15th October 2018
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Future shape of SIC ferry service set to be fought over in six months

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The first shots have rung out in Shetland’s next bitter spending cuts war – a battle to stop the inter-island ferries service being slashed, damaging the viability of isles communities.

During the initial skirmish in the council chamber yesterday the opposing sides on the environment and transport committee did at least agree it was essential that officials come up with possible new models for operating the ferries within six months.

Both camps want an early sol­ution rather than having to wait the 18 months that had been suggested. But their desires for the outcome of the review are worlds apart.

At this stage the only new option officials have confirmed will e­-merge for debate is the farming out of the service to private operators, as has already been done success­fully and at reduced cost with the Foula ferry, run by local company Atlantic Ferries.

With several years of painful cuts yet to come and a ferries’ fuel bill spiralling out of control again this year (see separate story), some Mainland members are marshalling their arguments for an unprece­dented assault on the much-admired service which has expanded greatly since the 1970s. Last year it cost  £10.9 million in running costs and brought in about £1.6 million in fares. Already there is talk of cutting operating hours and re­ducing the frequency of sailings.

In the opposing camp are the three North Isles members who are increasingly resentful about what they see as a Mainland bias in the local authority. Already scarred from the axe blows of their col­leagues who despatched the primary schools in Uyeasound and Bur­ravoe, they now wait for some of the same councillors to set about the ferries and, in the words of Yell-based councillor Robert Henderson, “emptying the isles”.

Mr Henderson told the committee on Wednesday he was dismayed to hear some of the views around the council table and he repeated his belief that putting up fares any higher or reducing the service will force young folk out. Then the council will have to house them in the central belt. “Basically it would destroy the isles,” he said.

That is already happening in Whalsay, according to its resident councillor Josie Simpson who voiced isles members’ resentment towards those who slapped a 15 per cent fares rise on ferry users this year. He was backed by Mr Henderson who said that with bus fares only rising five per cent the extra 10 per cent levied on ferry users was “a tax on anybody staying in an island”.

With no sign of tunnels or bridges coming to the rescue, the lifestyles of many isles folk will be at the mercy of the majority view among the 22 elected members when they debate ferry cutbacks over the coming months.

It was councillor Rick Nickerson who succeeded in getting a com­mitment out of infrastructure ex­ecutive director Gordon Greenhill to table “politically acceptable” models for a new-look ferry service within six months. Mr Nickerson wanted early progress because even if a new model is agreed it would take at least a further year for it to be put into action.

He told the committee the only way the council was going to fix its spending problems with the ferries was not by sourcing cheaper fuel but by agreeing a level of service it could afford, possibly by cutting runs and operating hours. “None of us is going to like it,” Mr Nickerson said, “the same as the way none of us like closing schools.”

Others looking for savings include committed cost-cutter Allison Flea Duncan who questions ferry crew numbers; Gary Robinson who said the most fundamental problem was that “the ends don’t meet anymore” yet members are not hearing any solutions, and Betty Fullerton who believes the current ferry service simply cannot be sustained. She said: “Something’s got to give.”

On top of the escalating running costs they know that some of the 15 ferry terminals are being used beyond their lifespan and require replacement or major upgrading while some of the fleet of 13 ferries will also have to be renewed at huge expense.

While some councillors are expecting cuts Mr Simpson is still seeking the promised service im­prove­ment for Whalsay to cope with traffic bottlenecks. He said Whal­say had a big, big problem now and officials were simply delaying progress.

Mr Simpson dismissed as “utter bunkum” a proposal to save £50,000 a year in fuel by switching the island’s ferries, restricting the bigger boat Linga to daytime oper­ations only. He said it would only make the congestion worse. Clearly annoyed to see the proposal still in the plans, albeit delayed to next year, he said in despair: “I don’t know where we’re going with all this!”

The thinking behind the fares hike that councillors pushed through was that it would bring in an extra £146,000 this year but it is already becoming evident that fewer people are taking their cars on the ferries, which means income from fares is dwindling while costs are rising.

Councillor Caroline Miller, whose North Lerwick ward includes Bressay, where she lives, said councillors had sat in the town hall and told colleagues and officials that that was what would happen. The previous night she had counted 12 Bressay cars parked up near the ferry terminal rather than taken across on the ferry.

Although a ferry user, she suggested to the committee some ideas for cutting services, including capping the speed ferries travel at and operating at slack times, such as afternoons and evenings, only if there are bookings.

Mrs Miller said she was “absolutely scunnered” not just with ferries but the entire transport system in Shetland and how little had been achieved to improve it in the four years she has been a councillor.

She wants the residents of every rural area to be able to travel from home to catch the first flight out of Shetland and to be able to get shift-work. She warned if there were more expensive fares then only old folk would be left in the islands because young folk could no longer afford it.

Mr Henderson saw the chance to stick the knife in his fellow ferry user in revenge for her support for closing the isles’ primary schools. He said he was glad she wanted more folk living in the isles but her votes on the schools had already ruined that scenario.

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3 comments

  1. Colin Hunter

    In common with most of the councillors, I can remember what Shetland was like “pre ferries”. “Da Owerlaund” was the most used way to travel to and from “Da Toon” and also brought the mail. Other, more bulky, goods and animals, as well as some passengers, travelled on “Da Earl” which came as far north as Baltasound on Mondays and Fridays, arriving about 4pm, spending the night after working cargo, and returning to Lerwick the next morning. She called at Whalsay, Skerries, Mid yell and Uyeasound on the way, Other ports of call were included depending upon demand. I remember that everyone who had a job worked on the Island they lived in and few people had cars, even fewer had cars which were able to be used to travel to the mainland after the ferries came. Children at school in Lerwick only managed to get home at Holiday times and the occassional “Lang weekend”. I can remember some epic trips to get home, especially in winter.
    The thought of having a job on one island while living on another never entered peoples heads until after the ferries had been running for some years and an extended timetable with more runs made this possible. The fact is that this has now become the norm and many people travel daily from the isles to work on the mainland. You could say that the ferries have become a victim of their own success and many people would be in queer street without them. This fact has enabled successive councils to do little or nothing to combat the lack of employment in the isles, particularly in Unst where they actually closed the council owned and operated airport and did nothing to fill the void left behind. At that time, many young men and their families left the isle, never to return. The fact that, 40 years after their intruduction, Unst is still the only major island without it’s own ferry based locally is nothing short of a disgrace.
    Rising crude oil prices in recent years have brought a corresponding increase in fuel costs as we are all too aware, and ever larger ferries with more powerful engines have exacerbated the cost to the council.
    In the same way that closing a school means that pupils must then be transported, inevitably incurring fuel costs, to another school, so the lack of local work means that isles people must travel to find it. Reduce the level of service and increase the fares if you must, but remember that many more people will start making their ferry trips one way. The only way to combat this is to halt the continual flow of new jobs to Lerwick and its surrounding area and encourage more businesses to locate in the isles. Only when you decrease the demand for travel will you be able to reduce it’s provision without major problems. Either that, or start looking seriously at fixed links.

    Reply
  2. I find it shocking that upon hearing that the ferries have made a £9.3m loss there hasn’t been more discussino on removing them completely in favour of fixed links. In the many discussions I’ve had with both islanders such as myself and of people interested in moving to the isles the only people who have a problem with introducing a fixed link are the ferrymen themselves.
    A lot has been said over the proposed tunnel to Whalsay, such as it’s steep cost, but a tunnel to Yell would only be half the distance (and by simple logic, half the cost) and would free up the two largest ferries in the fleet. These ferries could be used on other services (such as the Whalsay run), or could be sold off to subsidise the cost of introducing a fixed link.
    In addition, the link to Yell would improve travel times to Unst and Fetlar. One of my coworkers has to really push to make it through Yell to make the ferry to Unst from the 0645 from toft, otherwise he has to wait a full hour until the next ferry arrives for Unst.
    I would like to hear from councillors and see why they are so against such ideas. yes, some ferrymen will end up out of work, but there are other jobs they can pursue, after all they have plenty qualifications. Adding tunnels would actually create jobs during their construction, another added bonus.
    I moved from Yell last year to make it easier for me to attend Shetland College and to do shift work to keep me going while I study. Unless something drastic happens to the current service I can’t see myself returning to live permanently.

    Reply
  3. Neil Williamson

    Mathew,

    easy words from a person whom hails from south.
    This is probably the most crazy of statements I have read here.
    Pull yourself together!

    Reply

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