There is growing dissatisfaction with the vital lifeline service operated by Serco NorthLink with cancelled sailings and partially completed trips apparently becoming a regular feature of winter operations.
Delays in both northbound and southbound sailings of the passenger ferries Hjaltland and Hrossey on Monday and Tuesday and cancellation of the southbound freight boat Hildasay and delay of the Hrossey in the other direction on Tuesday were just the latest in a string of such incidents in apparently unexceptional weather.
On Sunday 14th December, the northbound Hjaltland terminated her trip in Kirkwall and returned to Aberdeen by mid-day on Monday. Pentland Firth ferries to and from Orkney were also disrupted that day.
With the isles in the grip of the festive season, Christmas shoppers dreading empty supermarket shelves and returning hamefarers facing travel delays, it is the worst time of year for disruption to the ferry timetable.
It has been claimed that the Hjaltland and Hrossay are unsuitable for the North Sea and that in any case the service is being unnecessarily interrupted for operational reasons other than the weather.
But the company has denied any considerations other than safety are factors in cancelling or rescheduling sailings.
Serco NorthLink spokeswoman Marion Cordiner said: “There have been disruptions to our timetable due to adverse weather conditions. Our priority is always the safety of our passengers, crew and cargo. Any decisions to re-schedule or cancel sailings are made with this in mind.”
In a letter to The Shetland Times (page eight), Vic Thomas of Clousta demands to know “why one year in the NorthLink calendar gives us a lifeline service with more delays and cancelations than in several years put together of the former P&O service?”
Mr Thomas continues: “Whatever the reasons, it’s imperative come the next contract, that the local communities of both Orkney and Shetland have a say in what service we need and not the rigged sham that saw NorthLink and then Serco take over.”
He asks: “Are the ships so useless? Is NorthLink so scared of being sued if someone falls over on a rough passage? Does NorthLink save money by not sailing?”
Mr Thomas’s letter brought agreement from Thomas Leask who dubbed the North Boats “Caribbean cruisers”.
However, Julie Ritson pointed out that “people’s safety and comfort is more important than putting people’s lives in danger … I for one would rather the boat didn’t sail in bad weather than put my life in danger.”
Shetland External Transport Forum chairman Allan Wishart said he was convinced that the service would be improved when it next went out to tender in 2018. But he pooh-poohed the claims of “armchair skippers” and said that he had every confidence the NorthLink masters were making decisions based on their own judgment on safety.
Mr Wishart, a former chief executive of Lerwick Port Authority, added: “There’s no doubt that disruption is causing upset and inconvenience – but after working in the harbour for 20 years I’m a firm believer that the master of the ship knows best.
“The captain of the ship is ultimately in charge of the ship. I’d be very surprised if there was any other influence being brought to bear.”
Mr Wishart said there were genuine capacity issues that had to be addressed, but it was very difficult to get any sort of transport service that could handle peak demand. He had been on one trip this winter that had 65 passengers going south and 73 going north on ships built to take 500.
It is also increasingly likely that the Hjaltland and Hrossay will remain in service after the next ferry contract is issued in 2018.
Northlink operations manager Stuart McCallum told Lerwick Community Council last month that new, larger vessels “would depend on the new Nigg Bay harbour area development” south of Aberdeen. But there is uncertainty over when and if that massive £320 million project will go ahead.
Mr Wishart said that new, purpose-built ships could be introduced at some stage in the lifetime of the contract. There were many issues to address, such as the optimal length of duration of the contract, which was won by Serco with a last-minute bid that brought much criticism of the way the tendering process was handled by the Scottish government.
He said it had to be borne in mind that Shetland was a net contributor to the national economy – an important node in the multi-billion pound oil industry and with a seafood export industry worth £300 million. As such, any investment in the ferry service should be regarded as a national asset.