The six companies vying for the next North Boats contract have to submit their final tenders next month.
The government’s transport agency Transport Scotland is currently in talks with the individual bidders who were shortlisted for the six-year contract just over a month ago. They are NorthLink, former Orkney and Shetland ferry operators P&O Ferries, international services firm Serco, Shetland Line – which currently has the government’s freight contract for the Northern Isles – and Norwegian shipping operator Sea-Cargo.
Sea-Cargo runs a once-a-week freight service from Tananger to Aberdeen and to Immingham. It gained a foothold in Shetland last year when it bought a controlling interest in the freight firm Northwards.
The sixth company, Pentland Ferries, only wants to operate the Kirkwall-Scrabster route.
A Transport Scotland spokeswoman said this week that once the final tenders were in a decision on the successful bidder would be made in the spring. The new contract starts on 6th July.
While most of the bidders are familiar names in shipping, Serco is not, even though it is by far the largest of the prospective North Boat operators. It is known in Shetland for running Scatsta Airport but around the world it has over 700 contracts to run operations such as prisons, immigration removal centres, railways, speed cameras systems and leisure centres.
Serco is not widely known as a ferry operator – it has one short service, the Woolwich Free Ferry across the River Thames, which carries over a million vehicles a year. But it actually has extensive knowledge of marine harbour operations through working for the Royal Navy, putting its ships to sea at its main UK naval bases at Faslane, Portsmouth and Devonport. It manages over 100 vessels and operates tugs and pilot boats.
Serco also maintains RAF aircraft and bases around the country.
NorthLink has held the North Boats contract since 2002 when it took over from P&O Scottish Ferries and introduced brand-new passenger ferries.