Scotland’s transport minister has defended NorthLink’s “very good record” running the north boats service following criticism from industry representatives and some councillors last week.
After a video conference with isles MSP Tavish Scott and chairman of ZetTrans Allan Wishart today, Keith Brown said he was satisfied with the company’s “prompt” action in bringing in the Arrow at the weekend to replace the stricken Helliar, which is in drydock in Sweden after she suffered damage when her propeller was fouled by a rope last weekend.
The loss of nightly sailings because of this during the dyrdocking period for the passenger ferries was a source of angst for the aquaculture and fisheries industries which rely on NorthLink to get their goods to market on time.
Councillor and Shetland Aquaculture general manager David Sandison criticised NorthLink’s decision to allow its other freighter, the Hildasay, to call at Orkney last Tuesday, which meant she did not get into Aberdeen until 1pm on Wednesday.
He told a ZetTrans meeting that money had gone down the drain because of the “unacceptable” decision to include Orkney which caused the Shetland fish to be stuck on the delayed ship. Livestock could wait a week or go an alternative route, he said, whereas fish was a perishable item.
But Mr Brown said: “It is very unfortunate that MV Helliar has had to go off service during this drydock period and I would like to thank all those inconvenienced by current disruption for their flexibility and understanding.
“Ferry services are vulnerable to weather and also to occasional technical problems. NorthLink services have a very good record in this regard.
“No other island community in Scotland has vessels of a quality of those serving Orkney and Shetland – and it costs us over £10m a year to provide these vessels, part of the £40m+ subsidy we provide every year to keep NorthLink services going. I am satisfied with the prompt actions NorthLink have taken in bringing in a replacement vessel.
“I realise that some operational decisions were not to everybody’s satisfaction but NorthLink have to take in account the needs of all users. There will be opportunity to review and learn from those decisions in due course but the priority for everyone now is to keep the services going and to work together to move goods and people as efficiently as possible.”
Mr Brown said concerns were raised during the meeting about the ongoing tender process for the north boast service and the extent to which the view of those reliant on the service have been able to make their views known.
Mr Brown said: “I was able to re-assure them of our commitment to the continued provision of a reliable, high qualify, ferry service between the Scottish mainland and the Northern Isles.
“The ongoing tender exercise followed a full public consultation exercise in 2010. Almost 400 responses were received. Full account has been taken of this consultation exercise. As the tender exercise has progressed, Transport Scotland has engaged with both local authorities and regional transport partnerships on a range of key issues.”