A MAJOR row has broken out after a lifeline ferry service between Orkney and Caithness has been left out of action.
The subsidised Scrabster-Stromness route operated by Serco Northlink has not been operating since Thursday following a mechanical fault on the ferry Hamnavoe.
The company has confirmed the ship will not be repaired for another month and they were currently looking at other options.
In the meantime, Serco passengers wishing to get to Orkney must travel from Aberdeen. It leaves just one Caithness ferry link with Orkney, operated by a private ferry firm from Gills Bay.
Orkney MSP Liam McArthur, who is to raise the issue at Topical Questions in the Scottish Parliament on Tuesday, said: “With confirmation that the Hamnavoe will be out of service for the next four weeks, urgent answers are needed from Serco and the Scottish government about how they intend to ensure continuity of service on this lifeline route.
“When the contract was signed last year, people in Orkney were promised an end to disruption during re-fit periods. Less clear was what would happen in the event of an unplanned loss of one of the vessels.
“However, Serco and the Scottish government have accepted that this is a ‘lifeline’ service. The Stromness-Scrabster route was explicitly written into the contract, after Scottish Ministers backed down from an earlier decision not to specify the service.
“Quite rightly, therefore, the Orkney community will expect Serco and the Scottish government to deliver on its promise and to do so without delay.
Caithness Councillor Alex Mcleod said: “Why is there no contingency service for Scrabster? This is will cause real reputational damage for Caithness, especially at the beginning of the tourist season.
“This is also the life-line service for Orkney/Caithness. Did the Government know that Northlink had no contingency for the Hamnavoe when they awarded this privileged status? If not, why not?
“It is also deeply worrying to see Northlink advise their passengers to bypass Caithness altogether, and sail via Aberdeen.
“There is a fabulous alternative service from Caithness to Orkney, which leaves from Gills Bay. It is deeply dissaponting to see Northlink put their corporate need above the economic needs of the Far North.”
Orkney Islands Council Convener Steven Heddle, said: “We have made it clear that the Council expects alternative arrangements to be put in place on the Stromness-Scrabster route as a matter of urgency.
“Throughout the consultation on the new Northern Isles ferry contract, the Council stressed the vital importance to our community of the 90-minute crossing of the Pentland Firth between Stromness and Scrabster.
“So a year ago, when Serco NorthLink were announced as the preferred bidder for the new contract, there was relief in Orkney that the Government recognised the need to maintain an hour-and-a-half crossing on this lifeline route.
“At that time the Government also pledged to ensure there would be no repetition of the problems we’ve experienced in the past when the ferries are in dry dock.
“The Council and our community now expect the Government and Serco NorthLink Ferries to fulfil that pledge. An extended break in service on the Stromness-Scrabster route must not be allowed to develop. As far as the Council is concerned, that would be totally unacceptable.”
Stuart Garrett, managing director at Serco NorthLink Ferries, said: “Initial internal and independent assessments of the Hamnavoe ferry, which is currently docked at Stromness, is that the crankshaft on the Starboard engine is irreparable.
“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. We will publish this within the next 48 hours.
“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.”