In what will come as a shock for NorthLink, existing operator of the Hjaltland and Hrossey and two freight boats as well as the Hamnavoe across the Pentland Firth, transport minister Keith Brown announced today that Serco would take over the £40.5 million-a-year contract this summer pending the “satisfactory conclusion of contract arrangements”.
Serco has one short service, the Woolwich Free Ferry, which carries over a million vehicles a year. But it 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. It also maintains RAF aircraft and bases around the country and has the contract to run Scatsta Airport.
The three passenger ferries owned by the Royal Bank of Scotland and the two freight boats Hildasay and Heliar, which are leased from Seatruck Ferries, will be maintained on the run for the full six years and NorthLink staff will transfer to Serco.
Mr Brown said the new contract would require the operator to ensure there is no repetition of the drydock problems experienced with the NorthLink service this year, improve passenger experience, make services available for time-sensitive freight and maintain 90-minute services from Scrabster to Stromness.
Mr Brown said: “The Scottish government is absolutely committed to providing the very best ferry services to Orkney and Shetland to meet the needs of residents, business and visitors alike.”
The announcement, originally expected at the end of March because of the short timescale involved in any new operator getting up and running by July, was delayed when Scottish ministers and civil servants went into “purdah” for the council elections.
SIC chief executive Alistair Buchan said today: “We look forward to receiving the details of the new arrangements. It’s obviously crucial that there is continuity in the provision of Shetland’s lifeline ferry service, and it is important that issues such as the level of service during refit periods are addressed.
“Shetland’s newly-elected council will obviously look at the matter at the earliest opportunity, and our officers will work hard to support them in safeguarding Shetland’s interests on this crucial issue.”
Isles MSP Tavish Scott said he would speak to Serco representatives early next week to emphasise the importance of the sea link to the mainland.
“I have, this afternoon, spoken to Serco. I congratulate them on winning the contract for the Northern Isles’ lifeline ferry services. I look forward to discussing with Serco early next week the importance of Shetland’s sea links to Aberdeen. I want to make sure that these services are not just maintained but enhanced for the future.
“I would like to thank NorthLink and all their staff for the hard work and commitment they have shown to the islands.”
Mr Brown, meanwhile, insisted the new operator would improve on the NorthLink service.
“The new contract rectifies many of the difficulties of the one we inherited in particular the recent difficulties with the extended drydock period.
“The new arrangements ensure we will avoid the situation where vessels have been laid up for long periods of time. Hjaltland and Hrossey will not be used to relieve the Scrabster-Stromness route as has happened in the past. A different replacement vessel will be used to cover Hamnavoe‘s dry-dock periods.
“The needs of vital time sensitive freight exports like fish and seasonal livestock and vital imports like supermarket goods will be met, and the services available for passengers will be improved.
“Passengers will see improvements to the journey experience with improved ticketing arrangements, premium reclining seats added on board overnight services, and improved catering, hospitality and customer care facilities.
“Crucially, clear commitments that crossing times, including the 90 minute crossing between Scrabster and Stromness, will also be retained.
“Given cuts by Westminster to the Scottish government’s budget, it is also essential that we make the very most of every penny spent in Scotland, so we will also see the new contract deliver value for money for Scotland’s taxpayers.”
Mr Brown said Serco Ltd had prepared a “thorough start-up plan” setting out what is required to be done to ensure a “seamless and managed handover” from NorthLink, including transfer arrangements for staff under TUPE regulations, in time for the start of the new service in July.
“Beyond this new contract, there is more we want to do for communities in the Northern Isles.
“We made clear in our Draft Ferries Plans that we see RET as the basis for setting fares in Scotland and have stated our clear aim to implement RET-based fares across every route in Scotland, including the Northern Isles. We will set out next year our proposals on how and when that will take place.
“I look forward to the beginning of the new contract this summer which will ensure that people travelling to and from Orkney and Shetland will continue to have access to safe, reliable and affordable ferry services in the future.”
The total value of the new contract will be £243 million over the six years.
All bookings and reservations made with NorthLink will be honoured by Secro.
Jeremy Stafford, chief executive of Serco UK & Europe, said: “We are delighted to have been chosen by Transport Scotland for this crucial lifeline ferry service. By drawing on our proven transport and marine expertise, I am confident that we can give passengers and customers a better service and deliver really good value for the Scottish Government. We are very proud of our long record of public service in Scotland, and this contract will be a distinguished addition to that.”
Serco said it operated more ships under the UK flag than any other company, including extensive operations in the international marine market.
Its wider transport experience includes the Northern Rail franchise, Docklands Light Railway, Merseyrail, Dubai Metro, Great Southern Railway, and Transport for London’s Barclays Cycle Hire Scheme.