Serco faces wrath over Scrabster ferry blow
Serco Northlink has confirmed no replacement vessel is in place after the Hamnavoe suffered a catastrophic engine failure.
The news has been met with anger by politicians who claim the port’s reputation as a tourist destination has been dealt a massive blow.
Critics are now asking the Scottish Government why Serco was awarded the £243 million contract when there was no clear contingency plan in place.
The Hamnavoe, which makes two return sailings a day between Scrabster and Stromness during its off peak season, suffered a crankshaft failure on Thursday, with the boat currently dry-docked in Orkney.
The company has cancelled all crossings until further notice, ruling out its other Northern Isles ferries covering in the meantime.
Caithness Highland councillor Alex MacLeod said the lack of contingency is unacceptable.
“We can’t have this happening at the start of the tourist season,” he said. “Everybody knows how important tourism is to the Caithness economy, but this is also a lifeline service between the Northern Isles and the mainland.
“It is damaging for Scrabster as a port to function as a tourism destination, as its future success relies on a good reputation.”
Mr MacLeod added: “I want to know what the government knew about Serco’s contingency plans when they awarded the contract.”
“It is shocking there appears to be no contingency plan – it is not acceptable.”
Serco beat off competition from five other bidders to be awarded the six year Northern Isles contract in May last year and officially took over the service from Northlink Ferries in July.
North MSP Rob Gibson said the government had to review what was written in the contract regarding contingency plans and make sure Serco is engaged in finding a solution.
“There was a lot of focus on vessels being out of action when they were being refitted in the past and the new contract was awarded to avoid this situation,” he said. “We need to find out what was written in the contract to find out what Serco is liable for.”
Serco Northlink managing director Stuart Garrett said a replacement vessel was being sought, but could not offer a date for when it would arrive.
“Initial internal and independent assessments of the Hamnavoe, which is currently docked at Stromness, is that the crankshaft on the starboard engine is irreparable,” he said.
“It will be up to four weeks before the Hamnavoe is back in service on the Pentland Firth crossing.
“We are currently stripping the engine and developing a detailed project plan and timeline for the repair.”
Mr Garrett continued: “Our commercial team and independent brokers are also looking at the availability of temporary replacement vessels, as a matter of urgency.
“In the meantime, we are working with our passengers to arrange alternative options for this lifeline service in order to minimise disruption to their journey.”
Serco Northlink advised customers on its website that anyone wishing to travel to Orkney to go via Aberdeen.
Scottish transport minister Keith Brown said that the situation is causing real concern on both sides of the firth.
“There is anxiety in Orkney and Caithness and I understand this concern,” he said. “The Aberdeen route is not ideal as it means passengers will not be travelling to Caithness which will affect its tourist trade.
“We need a remedy as quickly as possible, so people can still travel between Caithness and Orkney and freight travel will be restored temporarily over the course of the next 24 hours.
“We have to get the substantive service up and running and I am satisfied Serco is looking for a replacement vessel.”
Mr Brown confirmed that penalties apply within the contract if services are not run.
Pentland Ferries, which operates a ferry between Gills Bay and St Margaret Hope, has been inundated with customers since the Hamnavoe has been out of commission.
The council’s Caithness and Sutherland area leader Deirdre Mackay said every effort must be made to use the Gills Bay service while repairs were carried out.
But she said it is unacceptable for Serco to expect passengers to use its services via Aberdeen, saying it was damaging to commercial, freight and tourism industries in Caithness.
“The reality is that people travelling to and from Orkney are travelling to locations other than Aberdeen and it is critical that they are still able to do so,” she said.
“To expect passengers to accept Aberdeen as the only option is simply not on.”
“Efforts to restore the substantive Scrabster-Stromness link must be stepped up both in terms of securing another vessel and also speeding up the repairs to the Hamnavoe.”