Details of the next contract for the Northern Isles lifeline ferry service have been published by Transport Scotland, but the procurement is facing a legal challenge from Orkney based Pentland Ferries.
Following a first scanning of the tender documents, local politicians have voiced disappointment that neither a dedicated freight service for Shetland nor regular 7pm sailings appear to form part of the specifications.
In a statement issued yesterday afternoon, the government agency confirmed that Förde Reederei Seetouristik GmbH & Co. KG (FRS) is the third bidder for the £370 million contract.
The other two bidders for the eight year contract that is due to start on 31 October of this year are CalMac Ferries and the current operator Serco NorthLink.
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Islands minister Paul Wheelhouse also confirmed that Pentland Ferries, a company that competes with Serco NorthLink on the Pentland First route, is seeking a judicial review of the government’s decision to subsidise a public transport service, and has also lodged a complaint to the European Commission.
The minister said that the procurement process would continue as planned, pending the outcome of the judicial review and complaint to the EC.
The contract specifications, published on the Transport Scotland website, promote the current timetables and stipulates that the ports of Lerwick, Kirkwall, Stromness, Scrabster and Aberdeen will have to be used to run the service.
The future operator can propose changes to the timetable for 2020 but these will have to be approved by Transport Scotland.
The existing vessels will be made available to the winning bidder unless the incoming company wants to use their own vessels, which have to be at least of the same standard to be acceptable to Transport Scotland.
Mr Wheelhouse said: “Scottish Ministers will retain control of all of important issues, such as fares, timetables and routes to be served, through the public service contract. The services are being tendered as a single bundle.”
Chairman of ZetTrans, the Shetland Transport Partnership, councillor Ryan Thomson said changes to the current set-up were required now and needed to be made urgently.
“Now that the tender documents have been released we look forward to continuing discussions with Transport Scotland and identifying precisely what they mean by the term flexibility,” Thomson said.
“We won’t be waiting to have discussions around changes in the contract until after it’s been awarded, I feel there are changes which could be made immediately, in particular, the work around 7pm sailings seven days a week, a dedicated freight service to cope with current demand and the expected increase in demand, and the issues around cabin prices and utilisation.”
A Scottish Government spokesman said: “The introduction of road equivalent tariff has brought significant and continuing benefits to the Outer Hebrides and other island communities, but we are aware of the vehicle capacity challenges faced by our ferry services that come alongside a welcome increase in passenger numbers.
“Work is also already under way to appraise, and subsequently to deliver on, further improvements to the ferry services to the Western Isles. This includes extensive local consultation and a series of events is planned in the near future. The results of this appraisal will be available in the coming months.
“We are continuing to invest in new vessels and ferry infrastructure to renew the fleet, with the second vessel being built at Fergusons going to serve the Outer Hebrides. While the delay to the delivery of the two new CalMac vessels is hugely disappointing, these vessels will help meet the significant growth in traffic once they enter service.”