Published: 29/06/2012 11:00 - Updated: 29/06/2012 09:27

New ferry operator to cut number of winter sailings

Northlink Ferries has lost out to Serco.
Ferry services are likely to reduce during the winter to four crossings a day under new operator Serco.

THE number of sailings between Scrabster and Stromness looks set to reduce as the new operator of the Northern Isles ferry contract prepares to take over the route.

Serco Ferries has announced that it is likely to cut the number of winter ferry sailings across the Pentland Firth from three to two.

The company will officially take over from NorthLink Ferries on July 5 when it will begin its contract as the new operator for the Northern Isles for the next six years.

The current timetable of three sailings a week will remain in place until the end of the year before the change takes place in January.

Leading up to the takeover, the company held meetings in Kirkwall and Lerwick earlier this month to discuss its proposed changes to the timetable.

Serco Ferries spokesman Moray McDonald said that three sailings a day during the off-peak season is not a viable option and that it would be looking to reduce the amount of sailings.

"We’ve been open from the start about our plans and we held meetings in Orkney where we’ve discussed the issue with local representatives.

"There is general agreement that during the winter months, three sailings a day is over provision and nobody has disagreed that going to two sailings a day was the right thing to do.

"During this period there are sometimes more crew on board than there are passengers."

Concerns from the public about the proposed timetable change included the timing of the first sailing from Stromness.

Many complained the 6.30am departure would be too early.

The first ferry due to leave Scrabster would be at 8.45am.

Serco Ferries insists the times are designed to suit its freight customers who would be able to get off and on the islands in just one day, with the last ferry from the mainland leaving at 7pm.

Mr McDonald said the new timetable had yet to be set in stone and that the company would continue to discuss the issue with local representatives before any final decision was made.

"Timetables are always a tricky thing to deal with as you will please one group of people but upset another group," he said.

"The message we are putting out is that over the next few months, we want to get the public’s feedback on what we are proposing but if changes need to be made we will look at that."

The company is also looking at the possibility of reducing staff and introducing more flexible working practices on the service to coincide with the proposed cut in the number of ferry sailings.

Mr McDonald said that over the period of the contract, there will undoubtedly be changes that come through on how the service is operated.

Serco was selected in May as the preferred bidder for the Northern Isles ferry contract, which is worth an estimated £243 million and runs through to 2018.

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