A 50 per cent increase in NorthLink passenger numbers has been seized upon to highlight the need for additional capacity.
NorthLink Ferries managing director Stuart Garrett presented figures at Tuesday’s external transport forum, showing huge rises in the number of passengers, cars and freight using the service over the past 20 years.
Passenger numbers in 2003 stood at 97,670. By 2023, the figure had increased by 50 per cent to 153,651 – and that was without including November or December.
When considering like-for-like comparisons for the first 10 months of the year, passenger numbers in 2023 were up by 20 per cent on last year alone.
Freight volumes have increased by almost 150 per cent in 20 years.
Forum chairwoman Moraig Lyall said the figures demonstrated the desperate need for new freight-plus vessels.
The new ships are eventually intended to replace the ageing Helliar and Hildasay, offering quicker crossings and additional freight capacity.
But with additional space for up to 200 passengers on board, the freight-plus designs are also seen as part of the solution to the challenges facing the Hrossey and Hjaltland, particularly during “pinch points” in the year, such as the height of summer.
At one stage, the new vessels had been expected to enter service by 2026, though that date has been pushed back – and no definite timescale has been confirmed.
Mrs Lyall said the historical statistics showed how NorthLink’s passenger and freight ferries had been built for much lower capacity requirements – and their design had not anticipated the major increase in demand the past two decades had brought about.
“You are trying to meet the current demand with vessels that were designed for a different time” she said.
“From your perspective, getting the new freight-plus vessels as soon as possible would make your job much easier.”
Mr Garrett said Mrs Lyall was “absolutely right”.
“Continuing with what we have is not going to resolve the issue,” he said.
“We have to find a way of injecting additional capacity.
“And it’s not too early to be starting thinking this way.”
Mr Garrett said freight-plus was the best way to achieve that uplift.
He said it would be a “tremendous addition to the Northern Isles fleet”.
Although Transport Scotland expects to have designs for the new vessels ready next year, there has been no update on funding.
Transport Scotland’s Chris Wilcock said there was “no identified source or confirmed funding to build these ships”
“We are working towards having these vessels in the next five years, but the government is in an extremely challenging financial position.”
He said he was “continuing to push the case for additional funding to allow these to be built”.
Mr Wilcock also stressed that Transport Scotland was continuing to progress the plans so that they were ready to go as soon as the budget was confirmed.
Recent updates included modelling exercises in Holland to to test how the vessels would perform at Aberdeen harbour.
VisitScotland’s Steve Mathieson questioned what was being done to address capacity issues in the meantime, noting the growth in demand from tourism alone.
He asked whether Transport Scotland was just sticking with the “status quo” or considering additional sailings.
Mr Wilcock said there were “all sorts of practical and logistical” issues involved in scheduling extra crossings – a point reinforced by Mr Garrett.
However, he confirmed Transport Scotland and CMAL were continuing to consider second hand tonnage for both freight and passenger vessels.
Mr Wilcock also offered assurances such vessels would not be considered as a substitute for the new vessels in the longer term.
Mrs Lyall hammered home the importance of all these transport issues.
“Please continue to press the government on the essential nature of getting these vessels,” she said.
“Please get us to the point where they are ready to go, please continue to look for additional tonnage at every opportunity and please get that funding in place as soon as possible.”