The ferry service to the Northern Isles could be run by separate companies from next year, sparking fears operators may “cherry-pick” more profitable routes and harm services.
Scottish government agency Transport Scotland may tender the Pentland crossing between Scrabster and Stromness separately from the other routes to and from Shetland and Orkney.
The decision to split the current bundle follows last year’s review of ferry services.
A statement from Transport Scotland said: “As part of the ferries review we are considering the different ways in which ferry services can be delivered. One such option is to remove some routes from the current single bundle and tender them separately. One of the routes considered is that across the Pentland Firth.
“Therefore, in the forthcoming tender for subsidised ferry services to the Northern Isles, Scottish ministers have decided that the tender will be divided into two lots, allowing bidders to tender for each of the routes separately. This proposal was explored in the comprehensive consultation exercise carried out in 2010.”
RMT General Secretary Bob Crow said services would suffer as a result of the decision.
“This proposal is a kick in the teeth for both staff and the communities who rely on the northern ferries operations. It flies in the face of public opinion which is wholly against the break up and exploitation of these lifeline services.
“We will fight this stitch up by the Scottish government which would open the door to cherry picking and profiteering rather than seeing the Scottish ferries as the essential integrated public service that they are. Jobs will be threatened and communities thrown into turmoil if this ill-conceived decision isn’t reversed.”
The move has also been criticised by isles MSP Tavish Scott, who is still calling on the government to hurry up and publish a tender for the new contract which is fast approaching its June 2012 start date.
“They’ve been briefing journalists and priming Bob Crow’s union, which has taken a flier on it,” he said.
“I met with transport ministers before the summer recess, and they were at pains to say they did not envisage any great changes to the Northern Isles contract.
“If they were to remove the Pentland Firth from that contract, that would be a major change.
“The Scottish government needs to stop dilly-dallying and publish the proposed tender, because at the moment we are all in the dark.
“They have to understand they are dealing with lifeline services. To start playing around with it like it’s a contract for paper clips at St Andrew’s House is a completely unacceptable way to behave.”
However vice-chairman of the SIC’s transport partnership ZetTrans, Allan Wishart, said there was little evidence to suggest services to and from Shetland would suffer even if the existing bundle of services were split.
“As I understand it the service between Orkney and Shetland will still be carried out by one operator. My primary interest is in the connection with Shetland. I’m not sure there would be much impact of splitting the contracts on Shetland.”
NorthLink was first awarded the contract for the Northern Isles in 2002. With its current agreement due to expire next June, it has confirmed it will run for all the routes operating under the new contract or contracts.
A spokesman for the company said: “NorthLink Ferries is focused entirely on continuing to provide a first-class lifeline ferry service to the Northern Isles as we have been doing since 2002.
“The company has already indicated that it will be part of the rebidding process. We had noted in the latest information issued for the benefit of prospective bidders that the new contract would be divided into lots and had already been making plans on the assumption that this was likely to mean that the current contract was likely to be ‘de-bundled’ and that not every aspect of the current contract would be carried forward into the new one.
“The statement by Transport Scotland that Scottish ministers intend to offer two separate contracts … for the services operating out of Aberdeen to Kirkwall and Lerwick and that for the Pentland Firth route in no way diminishes our intention to submit a tender proposal.”