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Almost half of all sailings on the route now running at or over 90 per cent capacity

Shetland’s Stewart Building Transport Group met with the Scottish Government’s Minister for Transport, Jenny Gilruth, on Thursday (24 March) to present the findings of a study which has found that six in 10 northbound and four in 10 southbound sailings are running at at least 90 per cent capacity, with one in ten over the allotted capacity.

The report concludes that action should be taken as soon as possible to make more freight capacity available given the thriving Shetland economy and recommends that, to meet industry demand, an additional freight vessel be chartered from now until the time when new freight vessels are introduced on the North Isles route.

The Minister accepted an invitation by the Group to visit Shetland in person, over the coming months, to meet directly with businesses and islanders, in order to hear in detail more about the particular challenges that arise from the current restrictions in service.

The Transport Group, which represents the interests of the seafood sector and its hauliers, has been raising its concerns about the capacity on the route for some years, and has been in regular dialogue with the Minister’s predecessors to try to find a solution, so they very much welcomed the positive reception from the new Minister.

Stewart Building Transport Group chairman, Tavish Scott, said: “We know that, in freight terms, the Aberdeen-Lerwick-Aberdeen route is the highest earning route in the Scottish island ferry network, generating in excess of £10 million per year, the profits from which are fed back into the public purse. Despite this, it is often running at or over capacity and simply not meeting industry needs, which in turn impacts on the island’s economy and that of Scotland as a whole.

“The report clearly demonstrates that the service has not only reached capacity, there is absolutely no room for growth or, indeed, anywhere near adequate provision to handle peak periods or potential disruptions to service.

“We were encouraged by the Minister’s engagement and are delighted that she has accepted a formal invitation to visit Shetland to get a real, first-hand understanding of the challenges experienced by industry, hauliers and the service provider.”

The study, conducted by AB Associates and SSQC, looked at current freight, volumes, projected volumes for 2022, and weekly freight patterns, relating to shared services with Orkney.

The service has seen continued growth in freight, year on year, since 2016 – a trend that is set to continue, with a generally buoyant economy and near full employment. The report talks of sectors planning for growth, including fish catching, aquaculture (both salmon and mussels), and tourism, which is expecting significant growth from the staycation trend and greater use of motorhomes and caravans. There are also new developments in decommissioning, renewables (wind and marine), the Orion project, and Unst Spaceport.

The study warns that this growth potential is likely to be constrained by the availability of capacity on all routes. There is already evidence of demand being turned away because of lack of capacity, highlighting, in particular, the visitor market and oil and gas related traffic.

Plans for a range of construction projects over the next 10 years will demand the transportation of materials. This includes 500-plus houses, a housing refurbishment programme, road improvements, power station redevelopment, a new hospital and school, fixed links and ferry infrastructure, two supermarkets, and major energy project infrastructure.

The report identifies peak periods and days of the week when there is restricted space or no freight service, and the knock-on effect and resulting cost this brings to hauliers and their customers.

Since there is evidence that pinch points and capacity issues are spreading throughout the year on all routes, as well as all sectors projecting a growth in demand, the report recommends that action is taken as soon as possible to make more freight capacity available, particularly in the autumn, but also throughout the year. It also recommends that an additional freight vessel be chartered from now until new freight vessels are introduced on the North Isles route. This could be used primarily on the Shetland routes to cover capacity, dry dock, and any breakdown issues, but could also be used on other routes, for similar reasons.

The Stewart Building Transport Group’s Ruth Henderson concluded: “We are grateful to all those who contributed to the report, particularly Serco NorthLink Ferries. The report notes that those interviewed felt that Serco NorthLink Ferries is doing a good job in difficult circumstances. The company staff were praised for their co-operation and flexibility regarding bookings, particularly their good communication and desire to accommodate the needs of various customers.

“We were delighted to share these findings with the Minister, and now look to the Scottish Government to help us to support the vibrant, thriving economy, producing not just for Shetland, but Scotland as a whole.”