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Tuesday, 7 May 2013

Island transport links.....

The "Hamnavoe Ferry" appearing as a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow 
and our wee MV Graemsay in front of it.

For any community, transport links are key.  In Orkney, surrounded by sea, we are reliant on ferry services between each island and onto Mainland Scotland. Although we also have inter-island air links and main air services to Scotland, most folk travel by ferry.  And these last few weeks have seen some controversy surrounding these!

The MV Graemsay

Firstly, our wee island ferry, the MV Graemsay, went away for it's annual "service" and we had our usual replacement of the "Golden Marianna" which usually sails between Westray and Papa Westray in the summer months (and sometimes in the winter).  We usually only have the Golden Marianna for a couple of weeks in April, but this year unfortunately there was a breakdown in communication between the Ferry office and the community. This meant our ferry went away unexpectedly leaving farmers with a bit of a challenge to get desperately needed food for farm animals. Also many of us find the "Marianna" a challenge to get on and off as you have to step up onto the side of the boat and over onto the pier, and also go out through a narrow door.  The crew have been very helpful, but many of us prefer to get our shopping and heavy supplies in before our Graemsay ferry goes away to make life easier.

Fortunately the ferry company realised the error of their ways and did put on a special cargo boat for farmers last week. As I say the crew have also been very helpful, helping folk on and off and handing shopping out to us.  We have been promised proper notice for next year and yesterday our own wee "Graemsay" sailed back to us, so normality has returned!

However of wider concern for Orkney has been the absence of a ferry from Stromness to Scrabster (on the Scottish Mainland). The "Hamnavoe" usually sails this route but it had "catastrophic engine failure" a couple of weeks ago and was taken out of service.  This route is heavily subsidised by the Scottish Government along with the Kirkwall-Aberdeen route (which also goes onto Shetland).  The current contractor is Serco, an international service company.  But there has been much controversy as it seems that Serco are unable to provide a replacement vessel.  Apparently there is no "spare" passenger vessel available in the whole of Europe. In years past the other contractors could always call in a ferry from their fleet. But Serco, being a service company doesn't have a "fleet" and has to hire something in.

There is much debate among island residents and in the media over the clauses in the contract and the inability of Serco to provide a service on one of it's "lifeline" routes. Meanwhile we are without our "Stromness to Scrabster" ferry while it is down in Glasgow having major engineering work carried out.

The "Pentalina" running from St Margaret's Hope (photo courtesy of Derek Mayes

Serco's response is that there is adequate capacity on the alternative route from St Margaret's Hope (on South Ronaldsay, one of the linked south isles) which runs to Gills Bay on the Scottish Mainland. But this service is unsubsidised and run by a local private company with one ferry which only takes 35 cars.  Also transport links for "foot passengers" are not so good on this route - meaning you have to get three buses and possibly a taxi from Inverness!  The private operator (Pentalina) is doing a grand job, but the truth is that Orkney needs BOTH these routes!! Serco are also saying folk could use the Aberdeen-Kirkwall run - but not everyone wants an eight hour sail from Aberdeen!

Then there is the issue of cargo - local businesses and supermarkets are supplied from "south" via Scrabster AND Gills Bay, but again there is a capacity issue. Eventually this week Serco did put on a cargo ship which is operating between Scrabster and Stromness but is not able to take passengers.

Lots of local businesses are suffering. Not everyone outside Orkney understands there are alternatives, plus there is a lack of capacity. It's the tourist season which is short enough in Orkney (May to September) anyway and in this economic climate many businesses are struggling anyway.  Hotels and guest houses are reporting cancellations in the West Mainland of Orkney as folk either can't get a ferry booking or are choosing to stay over on the East side of Mainland given that's where they are getting the ferry to and from.

The "Hamnavoe" is expected back (according to Serco) on 24th May so "normal service" should resume then. Meanwhile there are many questions to be answered about the lack of service from a government subsidised company.  Not least that they are getting £100,000 per day less apparently £15,000 for each day it doesn't run. Hmmm if someone pays me £85,000 per day I can not run a ferry service too.....!

And for those of you wishing to travel to Orkney by car or as a foot passenger - Orkney IS open for business!

Pentland Ferries can be contacted here
Serco Northlink can be contacted here
John O'Groats passenger ferry can be contacted here

And for those of you who prefer to fly - then is the local airline, and this is the 30-seater plane you'll fly on which delivers you from one of the Scottish airports. (If you are flying from further afield your airline may do a deal with Flybe so you don't need to book direct.).  And - um - no, no jet engines just prop planes which aren't really that noisy and the flight is about an hour so not too long!


  1. Serco have been quietly taking over so many government services, and there have been a lot of issues with them. Them and G4S seem to be taking over; lots of our money going to them, with very little accountability.

    Lets hope they don't get their hands on CalMac!

  2. I've been following the saga of the Scrabster ferry on the BBC website, Sian, and can imagine just how inconvenient it's making life for you all. A whole month without one of your major communication links just isn't acceptable and I'm not surprised that people are angry. Fingers crossed things will be back to normal soon.