With the Northern Isles ferry service from the Caithness mainland at Scrabster to Stromness on the island of Mainland in the Orkney Isles crippled by the terminally damaged crankshaft on the MV Hamnavoe, Serco, the controversial private sector operator of the service, seems no nearer to resolving the issue of a back up boat to run the route.
In Orkney, the independent operator Pentland Ferries, runs a route across the Pentland Firth from Gills Bay in Caithness to St Margaret’s Hope on South Ronaldsay in Orkney.
In the rising temperature of anger in Orkney at the Serco situation, leaving the island without its state subsidised ‘lifeline service’ and down by 50% of its ferry access with the tourism season opening up, Serco has made it know that the Hamnavoe will be out of service for around four weeks, with no back up ferry yet on the horizon.
In defending the situation, A Scottish Government spokesperson has said the contract it has with Serco – to whom it controversially awarded the contract for the Northern Isles services under a year ago – ‘explicitly covers what will happen in the event of vessel failure’.
This appears – by admission – to have been as ‘explicit’ as an understanding that Serco will address the failure of any vessel by making ‘best use of of their maritime experience and industry contacts’.
The simple fact is that at the time of the award of their contract, Serco had NO maritime experience whatsoever.
The only ferry it had previous operated was a short cross-river ferry in the Thames in London.
So the company’s ‘maritime experience’ is at old as its Northern Isles contract and its industry contacts no older.
This continuing episode underlines the vulnerability of lifeline services to ‘cost efficient’ private sector operations and ought to give the Scottish Government pause in their agenda to privatise the Clyde and Hebridean services – once the Independence Referendum is out of the way.
The tender for these services was due this September 2013 and was hurriedly put back to 2016-17, with no remotely defensible explanation.