The current and former operators of the Northern Isles ferry contract are among six companies bidding to run the services from next summer.
NorthLink Ferries and P&O Ferries want to operate between Shetland and Orkney and Aberdeen as well as across the Pentland Firth.
They are joined on the shortlist, announced by transport minister Keith Brown today, by Shetland Line, part of the Streamline Group, services firm Serco, Pentland Ferries and Sea-Cargo A/S. With the six-year contract now in two parts, Pentland Ferries is only bidding for the Kirkwall to Scrabster route and Sea-Cargo for the Aberdeen-Kirkwall-Lerwick route.
Mr Brown said: “We are working to deliver the best possible ferry services for communities in the Northern Isles and are on target to renew this contract next year.
“I’m delighted we’ve reached another milestone in delivering a new contract which will continue to support the lifeline ferry services to the Northern Isles, meeting the needs of the Orkney and Shetland communities.
“A community consultation was carried out in the early stages of the process which has helped us to ensure the successful bidder will deliver what the users of the Northern Isles ferry services want and need out of their service.”
A “competitive dialogue” is now entered, consisting of a short series of meetings between officials and bidders before final bids are submitted early next year. The current contract expires in July 2012.