The Scottish government has failed to meet the deadline it set itself to introduce a version of Road Equivalent Tariff on NorthLink’s ferry fares.
New transport minister Michael Matheson has pointed to “complex and challenging” negotiations with Pentland Firth operators which have failed to bear fruit.
Not all Orkney operators have been willing to sign up to a deal with the SNP administration which would allow RET to be rolled out.
That, says the Scottish government, has left it unable to implement the cut in fares on the routes to and from Orkney without the risk of a legal challenge. The government is not prepared to introduce RET on the Shetland route alone – though fares will be cut from tomorrow.
The Scottish government says it still wants to negotiate a better deal and insists fares will be reduced by 20 per cent on the Aberdeen-Lerwick and
Kirkwall-Lerwick route from 30th June “as a first step” for both passengers and cars.
Mr Matheson said: “I am conscious that there is a great deal of interest in this issue amongst users of the services.
“I want to ensure that I gain a full understanding of the detail – it is already very clear to me that planning to introduce reduced fares on the Northern Isles network has been a complex and challenging piece of work.
“As a first step, we will cut fares on the Aberdeen-Lerwick and Kirkwall-Lerwick services from 30th June. These reductions will be around 20 per cent for both passengers and cars.
Mr Matheson said it had been “both disappointing and frustrating” that talks with commercial operators on the Pentland Firth had failed to reach an agreement.
“This means we cannot currently implement reduced fares on any of the routes to and from Orkney without the risk of legal challenge.”
He insisted he was determined to find a solution. “I have asked Transport Scotland to undertake some further work to see what measures, if any, we can take. As part of that, we are willing to reopen talks with commercial operators.”
Tory MSP Jamie Halcro Johnston said the announcement would be “extremely frustrating”.
“While I recognise that negotiations with operators have been complicated, it seems that it was only in the last few months that serious discussions really started to take place.
“These challenges were entirely foreseeable and it is clear that ministers in Edinburgh were not adequately prepared.”
Isles MSP Tavish Scott added: “This has been a long running saga. Orkney MSP Liam McArthur and I have continually pressed the government on this issue.
“Last summer it was announced that RET would be in place on Northern Isles routes by summer 2018. It has now taken the government to the last day of its own deadline to make today’s announcement. The government must ensure islanders who have already booked receive the reduction in fares.
“I welcome the news that an RET equivalent will now go ahead for passengers travelling Aberdeen-Lerwick and Lerwick-Kirkwall.
“But Shetlanders will see that this 20 per cent cut on passenger and car fares falls well below the former transport minister’s claim back in August 2017 that average fares would fall by more than 40 per cent and 30 per cent respectively.
“As our calculations show, the cost of getting off the isles alone for a typical family holiday will remain prohibitive for many.
“The new cabinet secretary for transport must now go further to ensure that essential cabin fares will also be subject to reduced fares given that few passengers will travel without a cabin on the 12-hour journey to Aberdeen.”