The row over NorthLink’s drydocking arrangements has petered out.
Arrangements are now being made to operate the reduced timetable as originally proposed, with no extra ferry helping out on the Shetland service.
The nine-week drydock period starts next Monday. The government transport agency Transport Scotland has confirmed that, as planned, NorthLink will operate passenger ship departures from Lerwick on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays and Aberdeen departures on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Sundays.
It emerged yesterday that an alternative so-called hybrid timetable offered by the Scottish government, providing a fourth southbound passenger sailing each week, was turned down in Shetland.
The proposal was to make the remaining passenger ship on the Shetland route work harder by doing extra sailings from Aberdeen during the day on Tuesdays and Wednesdays so she could fit in a 9pm sailing from Lerwick on Tuesday nights. However it would have meant a 9pm sailing from Lerwick on Wednesday night too, instead of 5pm.
The council and local seafood and tourism industries did not think it was justified to spend an estimated £200,000 extra on fuel and wages for the modest benefit of one additional sailing a week from Lerwick.
The hope is that bad weather will not disrupt either the passenger or freight ships seriously enough that Shetland is left without a daily export route for its salmon, whitefish and mussels.
Shetland Aquaculture general manager David Sandison said the industry was happy to support the proposed timetable provided NorthLink is allowed the flexibility to spend money to get ships back onto timetable if there is disruption, by burning extra fuel to steam faster.
He said the drydocking timetable was “fine – as long as there is no bad weather”. If a sailing is cancelled while just one passenger ship is in service it could mean waiting up to two more days for the next one if NorthLink stuck rigidly to its timetable for the drydocking period. With flexibility it could operate daytime sailings to get back on time again.
He said: “All we’ve ever asked for is that they understand the absolute necessity to provide the service required to make sure nobody is disadvantaged.”
A Transport Scotland spokesman said: “The long term future of ferry services in Scotland is vital not only for Scotland’s economic wellbeing but also for the people in our island and remote communities. The possibility of using an additional vessel during the drydock period was considered but regrettably it was not possible to achieve this.
“While extra sailings were also considered, local feedback was in favour of the basic drydock timetable, which is seen as adequate during periods of stable weather.
“This Scottish government is committed to ensuring we provide reliable ferry services and that is why we give our assurance that the drydock provisions under the forthcoming contract will ensure that this will not happen again.
”We also welcome the initiative of Loganair to provide an additional flight to and from Shetland four days a week for seven weeks during the drydock period.”
Chairman of the SIC’s environment and transport committee Allan Wishart said: “We would have liked to keep our ferries Hjaltland and Hrossey for at least some of the drydock period but since the government would not charter an alternative vessel to cover the Pentland crossing, we now face a nine-week period with only one passenger ferry serving Shetland.
“We have explored other options with local transport stakeholders. The feedback we received showed that the shuttle service which the government was proposing, as an alternative to chartering in a replacement ship, has no advantages over the original drydock timetable. It follows that the original drydock timetable is being retained, but if there is weather disruption during the drydock period, a shuttle service should be called upon at that time.
“Personally, I am very disappointed that Shetland will be losing one ferry for such a long period. However, I am heartened that the government now has a much better understanding of the threat to Shetland’s economy of having only one passenger ferry. We have to ensure that this situation never arises again.”