Scotland business

Serco confirmed as Northern Isles ferry operator

Northlink ferry
Image caption Serco will take over the service from Northlink in July

Serco has been confirmed as operator of the Northern Isles ferry service following a hearing at the Court of Session.

The Scottish government had to postpone plans to sign a six-year contract with the firm after rival bidder Streamline mounted a legal challenge.

The court decided to overturn the suspension of the contract award.

Serco can now publish its operational plans and take over the lifeline services from 5 July.

Transport Minister Keith Brown said the decision would remove any uncertainty for islanders, businesses and staff.

The ferry is one of the main modes of transport for people in the Northern Isles.

Serco will take over services run by Northlink between Aberdeen, Kirkwall and Lerwick and between Scrabster and Stromness.

The contract is worth £243m over six years.

Preferred bidder

Serco was announced as the preferred bidder earlier this month but Streamline argued it had a stronger case for running the route.

In welcoming the court's decision, Mr Brown said the new contract would rectify some difficulties, including having to extend the drydock period to carry out repair and maintenance on the vessels.

"The new contract will ensure we see no repeat where boats are laid up for unnecessarily long periods of time," he said.

"Passengers will also see improvements to the journey experience with better ticketing arrangements, improved catering, hospitality and customer care facilities, and premium reclining seats added on board overnight services."

Mr Brown added: "The new contract will also protect vital time sensitive freight transport and crucially, clear commitments that crossing times, including the 90-minute crossing between Scrabster and Stromness, will be retained."

'Questions remain'

Orkney MSP Liam McArthur said the decision by the Court of Session lifted some of the "uncertainty" surrounding the future of Orkney and Shetland's lifeline ferry service, but he said questions still remained about the detail of what Scottish ministers have secured from Serco.

He added: "Particular concerns have been raised in relation to freight services and this is something I will be discussing with local businesses over the coming days.

"There can be no question of this service being reduced, and it is important that resilience is built in throughout the year."

He said he also wanted the firm to make clear its intentions with regard to staffing, sourcing arrangements and pricing.

Scottish Labour's infrastructure spokesman, Richard Baker, questioned the Scottish government's decision to take the service out of the public sector and awarding the contract to a private operator.

"I know that ferry workers are worried over the impact this will have and there are real concerns over what level of service will be provided by Serco when they take over," he said.

"The National Farmers Union and the freighting industry have already expressed disappointment at the lack of clarity from Serco on future service provision.

"The reality is that Northlink has provided this service as a public owned company for many years and these are vital lifeline service for island communities."

'Smooth handover'

Serco said it would retain the NorthLink Ferries brand and appoint a locally-based management team.

Business development director Jamie Ross said: "Serco has considerable experience in operating critical transport services.

"We will build on the strengths of the current NorthLink operation and will introduce a variety of improvements to the services."

He added: "We will ensure there is a smooth handover."

Serco said it would maintain the current passenger and freight ferry timetable until the end of this year, before introducing new operational timetables from January 2013.

There will be no change to currently published fare prices in 2012.

Shetland Islands Council welcomed the resolution of the contract issue.

Allan Wishart, chairman of the Regional Transport Partnership, ZetTrans, said: "It is good to know who will be providing our lifeline link with the mainland, and we look forward to working with Scottish government and Serco to understand the detail of the new service and what it means for Shetland."

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