Work to bring about a better Shetland ferry service needs to start now, ahead of a renewal of the north boats contract in 2018.
This was the view of top transport official Michael Craigie, who addressed members of the Shetland external transport forum today and spoke about the possibility of replacing ferries.
Mr Craigie said the cost of running two passenger ferries and two freight vessels “was high” and the Hjaltland and Hrossey were small and insufficient.
He also warned of continued pressures on budgets, and the effects that could have on the ferry service in future.
Taking into account the possibility of new boats, Mr Craigie said it was important that ideas were pulled together and to have “a clearly developed set of issues” that the next contract should be taking into account, by the next meeting of the forum in September.
He said ZetTrans would be contacting all concerned parties for their views on the new contract.
Councillor Jonathan Wills, said he would like to see two larger passenger/cargo vessels with ability to operate all year round, with sufficient capacity for locals and particularly the backpacker and budget market for the tourism industry.
“Couchette accommodation” was needed, he said, and needed soon.
Talking about the issue now was “a bit late”, said Dr Wills and he called for a “concrete package of proposals” soon or, he warned, “we have missed the boat, literally.”
In February council leader Gary Robinson supported the idea of selling the Hjaltland, Hrossey and Hamnavoe ferries – replacing them with vessels with more cabins and ones that would be more fuel efficient.
Councillor Davie Sandison agreed they were “a little late to get in on the act”.
He said there were different types of fuelling options available for ships and this had to be “a key consideration” in terms of cost and sustainability in the new contract.
Councillor Alastair Cooper added he had spoken to those in local industry who wanted a longer operating day in order to send out goods and allow Shetland businesses to compete.
Afterwards Mr Craigie said there were pressures on budgets in terms of operational costs and low sulphur fuel to be brought in next year was expensive.
He added although there were clear improvements in the ferry service, and there was an increase in passenger numbers shown by NorthLink, there was still “a ceiling” the company was coming up against in terms of more capacity to get people on and off Shetland.
“There is a clear need for more passenger capacity,” he said,
Environmental issues, like using low sulphur fuel had to be addressed, added Mr Craigie and a more efficient service needed to be considered.
But he said the negotiations were not about asking the government for more money rather to look at things “differently” and see if solutions could be found.
Problems over the size restrictions of vessels in Aberdeen harbour were discussed – in relation to Dr Wills’ idea of two larger vessels.
But Mr Craigie said Aberdeen harbour had plans to remove that constraint and announcements about the future development of Aberdeen harbour are expected next week.
Members were also give a presentation by NorthLink managing director Stuart Garrett, who spoke about the success of “sleeping pods” for budget travellers on the vessels since their introduction in last year.
The number of pods sold had “increased considerably this year” he said.