Northern Isles MSPs, Orkney’s Liam McArthur and Shetland’s Beatrice Wishart, have written to the Transport Minister after reports that shared cabins may not return on NorthLink services. The MSPs called for a consultation to take place prior to any final decision, as well as consideration for fare structure, voucher and concessionary travel schemes to "best serve the needs of islanders".
During the Covid-19 pandemic the shared cabins option has not been offered due to safety concerns about the spread of Covid-19. Households can still use one cabin for multiple people. Those with concessionary vouchers currently have to sacrifice two vouchers to secure a cabin for sole use for one single journey, or use one voucher and pay an additional cash sum. Meanwhile pods are still operational on the service.
Mr McArthur and Ms Wishart have been pressing the Scottish Government to address this consequence of Covid on the value of the voucher scheme to islanders. Both MSPs have also been challenging NorthLink’s decision to end the islander food and drink discount onboard services.
Commenting, Mr McArthur said:
"The temporary removal of shared cabins was an understandable mitigation at the start of the pandemic and will be necessary for a period to come. However, the suggestion that shared cabins may never return will understandably cause concern for islanders.
"Shared cabins have been a long-standing feature on the lifeline service and a hugely beneficial option for those travelling on tighter budgets. If shared cabins are to be permanently removed, the Scottish Government must take steps to ensure the fare structure and concessionary travel schemes reflect this.
"Amidst the backdrop of already removing the entitlement of two free return journeys, in addition to changes with islander discount and the continued RET rollout delay, the Scottish Government must start treating those who use this lifeline service with a greater degree of respect. That would begin with a proper public consultation on any proposal to change future cabin arrangements."
Ms Wishart added:
"Shared cabins are a way for island travellers to keep costs down, especially for those on a tight budget. This is really important on a lifeline service where the ferry is the cheaper means for necessary travel to the Mainland.
"I have had constituents tell me how vulnerable they have felt when travelling on their own and they have not been able to book a shared cabin for the overnight passage.
"I have been pressing the Scottish Government for a change to the concessionary voucher/shared cabin issue. The entitlement to two free return journeys has been stealthily reduced to one under the shadow of the pandemic and needs to be reconsidered."
Notes to editors
You can find the text of the letter below:
Re: NorthLink - shared cabins
The local media are reporting comments by Transport Scotland’s Alan McCabe during a Shetland External Transport Forum meeting when discussing Northlink’s shared cabins. It was inferred that a return to shared cabins was unlikely even when the Covid-19 pandemic passes.
As you will be aware, shared cabins are a way of reducing costs for island passengers using the lifeline service. It has been a long-standing feature of ferry travel. You will also be aware that the current halt to shared cabins is having a disproportionate impact on those passengers eligible for concessionary travel who are having to use additional vouchers to secure a cabin for sole use, which has had the effect of cutting their entitlement of two free return ferry journeys per year to one per year. There are many who are living on a limited budget in the isles, and rely on shared cabin travel for the overnight crossing.
In light of the comments from Transport Scotland, we would urge the Scottish Government to undertake a consultation with stakeholders and the wider public in Orkney and Shetland. The consultation and any future policy must consider fare structure, voucher and concessionary travel schemes requirements that best serve the needs of islanders.
We look forward to hearing from you at your earliest convenience.
Liam McArthur MSP and Beatrice Wishart MSP