Rival candidates renew spat over ferry fares

Liberal Democrat candidate Alistair Carmichael has again called on the SNP to explain continued delays in road equivalent tariff (RET) funding for the Northern Isles.

Mr Carmichael said Transport Scotland has said it is reviewing how the RET formula – in existence since 2008 – would apply for the Northern Isles.

However, he does not believe that is fair on Shetland and Orkney as the last Scottish islands to be excluded from the scheme.

This week he called on SNP candidate Danus Skene to acknowledge the need for fairer funding for ferry services in the Northern Isles, rather, he said, than being forced to defend the SNP’s inaction.

Mr Carmichael said: “When the Liberal Democrats were in government in Holyrood in 2006 they introduced the Air Discount Scheme for the Highlands, Western Isles and Northern Isles.

Alistair Carmichael
Liberal Democrat candidate Alistair Carmichael

“In the coalition government in Westminster, the Liberal Democrats introduced a five pence fuel duty cut for rural communities across the whole UK. Can you imagine the uproar if these schemes were only provided to the Northern Isles?

“The SNP’s discrimination towards the Northern Isles is well known by Orcadians and Shetlanders. However, their stubborn refusal to implement extra ferry funding for the Northern Isles is, once again, completely unfair and economically illogical.

“RET has been benefiting the Western Isles since 2008, and recently it was announced that reductions would be extended to all remaining routes on the Firth of the Clyde.

“The Northern Isles has been left out for too long and I am afraid the response from the SNP government is not good enough.

“Local residents want to know why no steps have been taken to provide fair funding for ferries in the Northern Isles, and why we will see further delays in working out the RET formula for Orkney and Shetland when the Western Isles are reaping the benefits.

“We know that there is a debate over RET’s effect on longer routes – for example, from Aberdeen to Lerwick – but what is indisputable is that the ferry fares would be substantially reduced on other inter-island services, especially in Orkney.

“It is time the SNP understood the importance of ferry services to local businesses, families and tourists to the Northern Isles and redressed this inequality in funding.”

In response Mr Skene said he recognised the need for fairer funding for ferry services in the Northern Isles.

SNP candidate Danus Skene.
SNP candidate Danus Skene.

He added the SNP was “committed to levelling the playing field” so that island communities could compete economically with more accessible parts of the country.

“Transport is key to this aspect of our commitment to policies for both prosperity and fairness,” he said.

“Ferries should be as cheap and as efficient as possible. As a general principle, the application of Road Equivalent Tariff (RET) has the effect of containing traveller’s costs.

“The shorter the trip, the more dramatic the RET results, as prices derived from the actual costs of a trip will be greater per mile for short journeys.

“How much the taxpayer forks out to apply RET will depend on the actual running costs.”
If RET was extended to the Aberdeen runs, prices would go up, said Mr Skene.

“The basis of RET calculation was changed on expert advice in 2012, and while the Ferries Plan of 2012 declared that all lifeline ferry services would be RET based Transport Scotland promises “that RET would be introduced to the Northern Isles over a much longer time frame [than the West Coast], in order that no one would pay more for an RET fare than their current standard single fare.”

“If RET were applied now to the Aberdeen routes, travellers would pay more.”

But, Mr Skene said the RET debate veiled the underlying issue. He said the NorthLink ferry costs were “unacceptably high”.

“This is because of a thoroughly bad deal signed by the Lib-Lab coalition Scottish government signed in 2005 whereby the three ferries that entered the service in 2002 are leased from RBS as part of what is best understood as a PFI deal.

“By the end of this contract in 2020, £200 million will have been spent on renting hugely inefficient boats costing £100 million. Much of the rest of the subsidy bill goes up the funnel. The money could have got something better but we are stuck with the deal.

“The NorthLink subsidy costs over £40 million a year, or £300 per passenger trip on the Aberdeen runs.

“Reducing fares on these trips before or after applying RET is a horrendous burden on the taxpayer, much greater than for the West Coast ferries, and all a consequence of Lib Dem ministers’ decisions.

“The SNP will manage the situation as best it can.”

Meanwhile, he said, discussions were underway with Shetland Islands Council and Orkney Islands Council on the most efficient way to support council-run ferries.

If elected Mr Skene said he would be pressing for the “broadest permissible application of ADS discounting.”
He added: “I will also push for transfer of Air Passenger Duty from London to Edinburgh, allowing Scottish government to phase out its application to island flights.”


Add Your Comment
  • Douglas Greig Young

    • April 14th, 2015 18:53

    Mr Carmichael has had the RET explained, he seems to struggle with complex politics, except when requested to vote for nuclear weapons to be renewed, the bedroom tax and further austerity.

    Most people now realise RET was introduced on the shorter ferry crossings to reduce fares, whereas it could raise fares on the longer Shetland crossing.

    • Gordon Harmer

      • April 14th, 2015 20:49

      “Local residents want to know why no steps have been taken to provide fair funding for ferries in the Northern Isles, and why we will see further delays in working out the RET formula for Orkney and Shetland when the Western Isles are reaping the benefits”.
      “We know that there is a debate over RET’s effect on longer routes – for example, from Aberdeen to Lerwick – but what is indisputable is that the ferry fares would be substantially reduced on other inter-island services, especially in Orkney”.

      If you actually read the above article Douglas you will see it is concentrating on inter island ferries not the Aberdeen route. But hey why would you let facts get in the way of an ambiguous rant.

      Its not just the Western Isles ferry users who are reaping the benefits, why can people who live in Dunfermline and work in Edinburgh travel across the Forth Bridge for free all year round. When someone living in Yell and other Islands who work on the Shetland Mainland have to pay well over a thousand pounds a year to cross Yell Sound.

      • John Tulloch

        • April 15th, 2015 9:51

        Absolutely, Gordon.

        RET is a scam, we all know that the ‘capital’ and ‘overheads’ associated with owning a car i.e. purchase, licence, insurance, etc., are irrelevant to individual decisions we may make to drive from Glasgow to Aberdeen or, in this case, ‘Lerwick to Aberdeen’.

        Nobody buys a car in order to take it to Aberdeen on the boat, they already own it and have paid the one-off annual costs, so only fuel and other consumables and maintenance costs are really relevant.

        And we all know that the ‘marginal’ cost (cost per mile) of driving a return trip of 360 miles (180 miles x 2) is about £100.

        Neither is there road licence discount or fuel duty rebate because there isn’t a road to Aberdeen.

        Danus Skene has criticised the design of the ships use which are remarkably similar to the ones used in the Western Isles, but has omitted to tell us what he considers would be an appropriate design, capable of withstanding rough weather.

  • Johan Adamson

    • April 15th, 2015 9:00

    I want to know from the SNP however, why our lifeline service now costs more than most can afford at £600 for a family of four with cabin and car. Why the longer ferry trips are unfairly penalised (ours being the longest and most expensive)? At the governments fixed profit car scheme mileage rate of 45p per mile then the trip should cost £90 each way, so £400 too much. I dont really care how the RET is calculated, just that we are being penalised as the northern isles pay over the odds. The SNP need to seriously look at this because it is just unfair.

    And we also need an MP to look into the Flybe/ Loganair service which must be now running the oldest planes in the world which keep going technical (although Im glad its a relatively cheap service, it is still subsidised by the ADS and could be better).

    • Robin Stevenson

      • April 15th, 2015 11:06

      Basically, by reducing fares, this will hopefully lead to the creation of a far greater volume of traffic, generally, the shorter the crossing the bigger the volume of traffic [day trippers etc] thus, on these, “shorter crossings” they can afford to give a larger discount on passengers and vehicles, because of the sheer numbers.

      Shetland is quite different as it has to factor into the equation, such things as overnight accommodation:

      “The sailings operated by NorthLink to the Northern Isles via Aberdeen are the longest sailings from the Scottish mainland. The service between Aberdeen and Lerwick is the longest on the ferry network at approximately 220 miles and a crossing time of 12 to 12.5 hours. Analysis of the change in fares which would result indicates only passenger fares for non-islanders are likely to fall under RET. As a result there is likely to be less impact on the economic and social well being of Shetland. If the reduction in fare is likely to be small relative to the discounted fare then the increase in demand is unlikely to lead to capacity constraints. However, while there is significant excess passenger and car capacity at present there is often limited cabin capacity, especially during the peak summer period”.

      On the figures shown: there are considerable savings between Scrabster-Stromness in both passengers and vehicles, but for the others, just a saving on passengers. RET which was introduced by the SNP in 2008 intends to add another 14 destinations in 2015, I`d imagine Shetland would be phased in on 2016.

      Scrabster – Stromness- £14.50–£4.98—–65.7%- £43.20—-£22.86—-47.1%–£230.1—–£86.44—–62.5%
      Aberdeen – Kirkwall—- £27.10—£24.07—11.2%–£110.50–£110.50—-0%—-£370.48—-£370.48—–0%
      Kirkwall – Lerwick——- £20.50—£17.12—16.5%–£84.00—-£84.00—– 0%—-£278.24—–£278.24—-0%
      Aberdeen – Lerwick—- £16.30—£13.21—19.0%– £72.20—-£72.2——–0%—-£231.36—-£231.3—– 0%

      Scrabster-Stromness,–62.5% saving on vehicles
      Aberdeen-Kirkwall,—–No savings on vehicles
      Kirkwall-Lerwick,——–No savings on vehicles
      Aberdeen Lerwick—– No savings on vehicles

      • Johan Adamson

        • April 15th, 2015 12:21

        Our boat was not designed very well was it, with a shortage of cabins? More islanders should be able to travel at a cheaper fare, then at times you would need to charter another boat on the route to take tourists. What would be wrong with that? The oil industry has found it quite easy to find redundant cruise liners to use as accommodation ships here.

        If the RET does not lead to cheaper fares for us, but it does for others on shorter routes, the calculation needs to be changed. It is unfair that visitors and day trippers would benefit from cheaper fares and not islanders. How would you like to have to pay £600 just to get to a port on the mainland to start your holidays?

      • Robin Stevenson

        • April 15th, 2015 13:49

        This has been going on for a very long time, and although we hear the continued bleating from Alistair Carmichael & Co, could we not ask him, what, exactly did his party do about this problem, along with the”faux outrage” during the eight years while his party was in coalition government in 1999-2007? Or indeed, while Mr Carmichael [your MP] has done while holding the position of Secretary of State for Scotland?


        A Transport Scotland spokeswoman said internal ferry services in Orkney and Shetland were “currently the responsibility of the respective local authorities”.

        “In the Ferries Plan, published in December 2012, we made clear that we are willing to assume responsibility for all lifeline ferry services in Scotland, subject to the principles set out in the Ferries Plan.

        “We are in discussion with the local authorities who have expressed a wish to pursue this.”

        She added: “Given the current position, the Scottish Government has no locus to intervene. Setting fares for the internal ferry services within Orkney and Shetland is therefore the responsibility of the respective local authority.

        “Funding for the provision of local authority operated ferry services is provided by Scottish Government through local government block grants.”

      • Gordon Harmer

        • April 15th, 2015 19:32

        Erm, Hmm, how remiss of us, we forgot the SNP are accountable for nothing, its someone else’s fault, it should have been sorted before the SNPs eight year tenure.

      • Robin Stevenson

        • April 15th, 2015 23:35

        Your last sentence Gordon, is absolutely “Spot on”, 🙂

      • Johan Adamson

        • April 16th, 2015 8:54

        Im really confused now. I thought the Scottish Government had responsibility for the RET and the ADS? Therefore what is Carmichael doing apart from stirring up a point for electioneering? It is the MSP I need to look into why Flybe have cancelled or delayed most of its flights recently. Just how old are the SAABs? Where are the new planes that was meant to fly the route?

        Anyway, I dont care who sorts this out but it is too expensive for us and visitors to get here via Northlink, it is supposed to be a lifeline service and it is also more expensive than any of the other bridges and ferries operating in Scotland. Can our MSP now sort this out?

      • Gordon Harmer

        • April 16th, 2015 16:58

        My gift to you Robin, the old blame Westminster was getting a bit tired.

  • william stuart

    • April 15th, 2015 12:50

    hello / I have just paid £745 for my son and his partner with two children aged 10 and 8 plus their car to come here in august for two weeks / that includes the return trip /

  • william stuart

    • April 15th, 2015 15:23

    hello again / I have just looked at the bill again and it is £754 /

  • Ivar black

    • April 16th, 2015 20:21

    Friends & family doesn’t apply in peak season when most folk would want to use it, no surprise there then!!

  • Charlie Gallagher

    • April 25th, 2015 22:49

    Simple question. Why did Tavish not introduce RET when he was Transport Minister for nearly 2yrs in the Labour, Lib/Dem Coalition between 1999 and 2007?????? Correct me if I’m wrong but I do seem to remember this being widely discussed in the ST and that Tavish had said that, “if RET introduced fares would be higher”!!!

    • John Tulloch

      • April 26th, 2015 21:05

      If what you say happened fifteen plus years ago is true, it would be disappointing, however, Tavish Scott was a member of the junior partner in that coalition and would have much less power than the SNP has enjoyed over the last eight years with first, a minority government and latterly, governing with a large majority.

      So, disappointing as the young, inexperienced Tavish Scott’s alleged failure was, it was nowhere near as disappointing as the SNP’s failure to put right this flagrant injustice.

  • Duncan Simpson

    • April 27th, 2015 7:33

    No one here has mentioned another potential huge benefit for Shetland if we got the RET. The inter island ferries would be far cheaper. This would be a massive boost for all the islands of Shetland (people often seem to forget we are a group of inhabited islands and not just tributaries to “da toon”). Supposing a 45p per mile rate then a return trip to Whalsay would cost approximately £5 rather than the current £13. The difference on the shorter routes would be even more significant.

    • Duncan Simpson

      • April 27th, 2015 15:02

      Oops, missed the paragraph where Carmichael mentioned inter-island ferries! This would be of great benefit to Shetland and would surely help the SIC with its cost cutting.

  • David Spence

    • April 28th, 2015 11:22

    When it comes to ferry fares, one should also take into consideration the extra cost to islanders due to Serco reducing the islanders fare concession by 15% when they took over the contract. It may not seem that much, but, quite rightly, many people on the islands were pretty angry at the time.

    As well as this though, Serco have also increased their charges if you are a passenger on the boat (the infamous £10.00 for breakfast)………which, in many respects, I think, would put people off coming to visit the islands?

    It would be interesting to make a comparison between visitor numbers before and after Serco took over the Lifeline service (and how many times Serco has refused to sail or changed the times due to adverse weather conditions).


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