Hopes have been raised that the northern isles could soon secure improved ferry services after it was confirmed that the routes will be put out to tender again.
Transport Minister Humza Yousaf announced yesterday that the procurement process would get under way next month, with the new contract to be awarded in the summer of next year.
He said that delaying the process would have put the lifeline services “at risk”, and that the decision had been taken following consultation with local representatives.
Council leaders on Orkney and Shetland last night welcomed the decision, and vowed to negotiate for improved services.
Serco has managed the lifeline routes for the last six years but local campaigners have regularly raised concerns.
Orkney Islands Council leader James Stockan said: “I am pleased that the minister has come to a decision, allying any uncertainty that could have built up around how our lifeline ferry links with the Scottish mainland will be provided in future.”
He added: “We have always worked well with the previous operator, NorthLink, and the current provider, Serco NorthLink.
“Our challenge has never been with the operator, but with the level of service provided under the current contract.
“That’s why we will be negotiating for improvements, including the restoration of a year-round middle-of-the-day return crossing of the Pentland Firth, proper refit cover, and freight fares on the Pentland Firth that are in line with those charges on similar-length crossings elsewhere in Scotland.”
Ryan Thomson, chairman of the Shetland Islands Council’s transport committee, said: “We must work together to ensure that the capacity and costs to users for passenger and freight services will be fit for purpose for both industry and the local community.”
Orkney MSP Liam McArthur said tendering was “the best way to deliver a shipping service that meets Orkney’s needs”, and added that “increased capacity on these lifeline services will be crucial”.
Stuart Garrett, Serco’s managing director of NorthLink Ferries, also welcomed the decision and added: “During the last six years NorthLink Ferries has, under Serco’s management, delivered a lifeline service of high quality and reliability and has invested significantly, bringing a range of improvements and innovations to the vessels and the service.”
However, Highlands and islands Green MSP John Finnie said the situation was “extremely disappointing” and a “lost opportunity” to deliver a publicly-owned service.