Wishart calls for more accessible cabins on Serco NorthLink ferries

20 Jul 2023
NorthLink vessel on the sea

Scottish Liberal Democrat and Shetland’s MSP, Beatrice Wishart, has today sent the first paper of a series highlighting important themes identified by respondents to Wishart’s recent Serco NorthLink booking survey to the Transport Minister, Fiona Hyslop MSP. Respondents raised issues when attempting to book accessible cabins.

Wishart is calling for a change in policy for booking accessible cabins and the creation of more accessible cabins. Wishart has also suggested that naval architects meet with those travellers with experience to help inform new ship design on accessibility.

Wishart’s survey attracted 200 responses within 24 hours and in less than two weeks over 1,000 people had completed the survey. Only 77 responses were received from those out with Shetland, and many of those were from Orkney and Aberdeen with connections to the isles, meaning that around 1 in 20 people currently resident in Shetland completed the questionnaire. Around 65% of respondents, over 650 people, also took the time to provide comments about the booking system and their wider experiences using the service.

Some of the comments about disability and accessible cabins included:

“Travel as a disabled person is extremely hard to organise.”

“Cannot use pods or recliners due to disability.”

“I am disabled and ideally need a space I can make sterile to administer medications.”

“Nowhere else in Britain would a disabled person be forced to endure this.”

Ms Wishart commented:

“I’d like to thank all who took part in my survey. I am not aware that Serco NorthLink Ferries, Transport Scotland or the Scottish Government have undertaken a survey of passengers on this scale, and I hope the results help to illustrate the needs of islanders and their views on the current arrangements. I believe the strength of the response to this survey demonstrates the deep concern in the community about the service.

“Responses from my survey show that passengers value the work of Serco NorthLink staff who try to accommodate passengers and their needs, but it highlights that bookings for accessible cabins are not always achievable for passengers with accessibility needs.

“We need a secure system that can allow those with accessibility needs to book a cabin without necessarily revealing their needs to a stranger. There needs to be enough accessible cabins available for those needing them on each passage.

“In the future we will need vessels that meet the needs of 21st century travel, but for now it should not be necessary to have to speak up, revealing intimate information about yourself, to secure the accommodation you need.”


Notes to Editors

The text of the letter to the Transport Minister and accompanying paper on survey results can be found below:



Dear Minister

You will be aware of my recent survey asking for travellers’ experiences of Serco NorthLink Ferries Northern Isles – Aberdeen – Kirkwall – Lerwick route. I have identified a number of themes from this survey and enclose the first paper outlining the experiences passed to me through the survey regarding accessibility and accessible cabins on the service.

I look forward to your considered response to the enclosure.





Beatrice Wishart MSP launched an online survey in May 2023 regarding Serco Northlink Ferries’ (SNF) booking system for the Northern Isles routes.  Within 24 hours it had 200 responses and in less than two weeks over 1000 people had completed the survey.

A wide range of comments accompanied the survey including several commenting on accessible cabins.

Cabins are essential for most passengers for the overnight crossing and should not be viewed as a luxury. It is patronising and reductive to equate a pod seat or airline seat to a berth in a cabin for those that require a bed for the 12-14 hour journey.

Cabins are a necessary requirement of overnight travel for, but not limited to, those with a disability or mobility issues, people with an underlying medical condition requiring specialist equipment or privacy, and those travelling with very young children. Over 350 comments were received on the need for additional cabins, the calls for the return of shared cabins, and to report wider issues with booking suitable accommodation on-board.

Comments highlight that people who need accessible cabins have not always been able to book them and others report being offered one when they do not need it. It appears from these responses that there is not an adequate system in place to ensure the accessible cabins are allocated to those who need them, when available.

Below are quotes from respondents referencing the need for an accessible cabin or needing a private cabin due to a medical need or specialist equipment. Please note these have been redacted for brevity and to ensure the protection of identities of respondents.

“I am not eligible for concessionary travel but my son is and he has a C1 card.  He has not been able to holiday due to lack of disabled cabins.  …  This is supposed to be a lifeline service.  It is also our route to mainland”

“It is so frustrating that we have had to change dates due to lack of cabins. … due to arthritis cannot spend the night in a chair. The NorthLink staff are always helpful, but the service is certainly not what it used to be!”

“I have a brain tumor ... 75% of all travelling has been without accommodation and this is very degrading … and extremely embarrassing.”

“There are not enough disabled cabins available.”

“I have mobility problems and it’s almost impossible to get a cabin on any trips I’ve tried to book. I use catheters and it’s embarrassing and almost impossible to use in the public toilets onboard. I’m having to travel without a cabin or pod to get to the mainland … in July and I’m dreading the journey. Nowhere else in Britain would a disabled person be forced to endure this.”

“Pods are not suitable for many people, particularly disabled.”

“I am disabled and ideally need a space i can make sterile to administer medications and feed through a … feeding tube … it is uncomfortable and unsterile to access my feeding tube in the shared areas of the boat. I would also like to see the number of accessible cabins increase, although I know that the current ships do not allow for this. currently, anyone can book an accessible cabin if there are no other cabins showing on the website, by clicking the “show accessible cabin” tab. this means that the adapted cabins are used by those who simply cannot book a cabin but do not need the disabled cabins, or at worse, by people who wish to take advantage of the larger cabin size. this means travel as a disabled person is extremely hard to organise. more cabins, or cheaper or protected cabins for locals”

“Tried to book the boat but no cabins available. Cannot use pods or recliners due to disability and travelling the next day. Had to book flights instead. Not happy.”

There is a clear concern that accessible cabins are not available when needed or in the quantity needed. Something must be done to address this whether that is a change in policy for bookings or creating more accessible cabins.

What is certain is that any new ships must include more accessible cabins in their design. A meeting with naval architects and passengers who require accessible cabins and have experienced travel on the Northern Isles route, would be a useful start when the process of new ship design begins to be developed for the route in order to help mitigate the struggles experienced by passengers.

Responses appear to show that disabled passengers and those seeking accessible cabins are being let down by a lack of availability.

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