Northwards has welcomed the announcement by Transport Scotland on the planned replacement of the islands’ freight vessels with new purpose-built vessels. The proposed 140-metre replacements for MV Hildasay and MV Helliar can accommodate an extra row of trucks on both decks, with capacity for 86 instead of 68 trailer units, which, says Northwards commercial director Neil Leslie, is “very welcome news”.
He continued: “This is a step forward not only for the haulage industry but for the Northern Isles as a whole. Orkney and Shetland currently have a serious problem in terms of freight capacity, which in turn affects many industries throughout these islands. If the freight ships can be replaced with those proposed yesterday, this will, in the long term, provide the capacity and service that we really need. In the meantime, we look to Transport Scotland for an interim solution, in the form of an additional freight vessel, to solve the current issue – and potential crisis – in terms of transporting non-perishable but essential goods to and from the islands.
“With Serco NorthLink reporting on an overall reduction of 71% in terms of passengers and 58% in cars for January and February this year, there has been additional capacity available on the passenger vessels to accommodate the 5% increase in freight. Looking at our own volume of freight on the Aberdeen – Lerwick – Aberdeen route, we have already seen an increase of 33% on the same period last year.
“As transport opens up again, and Northwards alone projects a possible spend of £7 million, representing a 50% increase in freight volume this year, cars and trailers – and, indeed, hauliers – will be competing for precious space on the vessels.
“On current sailings, priority is given to perishable goods. This is right and proper. However, this policy frequently results in all other freight and returning trailers being delayed for up to a week. Added to this, we have a pinch point when livestock is being shipped, which means other freight is regularly delayed by three days or more.
“To be clear, we have no criticism of Serco NorthLink: we believe that they are doing the very best they can, with the resources available. They simply need more resource – in the form of a third freight ship that would allow Orkney its own dedicated freight vessel and Shetland the two ships necessary to accommodate the current and growing demand.
“For our industry and our customers, the links are not just important, they are vital. Without the appropriate transport infrastructure, the islands’ business recovery from Covid will be impeded and any ambition to develop and grow will be stifled.
“This is the time for stimulating economic growth by encouraging the development of existing industries such as seafood, oil and gas and welcoming new ones such as renewables and decommissioning. All of this is at the heart of government policy, so while we welcome yesterday’s announcement, we would urge Transport Scotland to make sure that they facilitate these new opportunities and, of course, realise any potential for financial return from the service.”