MINISTERS have come under fire over a “nightmare” freight crisis on the Shetland Islands which is seeing a hoard of goods vehicles and trailers left unshipped on a daily basis.
Transport companies say that issues with a lack of space for lorries on two freight ferries that serve the islands meant that in recent weeks trailers have had to wait four days or more to making a crossing.
As many as 45 trailers were backed up on Shetland last Friday evening alone.
Hauliers are warning that the situation is posing an “extremely serious threat to the economy of Shetland” and are demanding that Transport Scotland put on extra ferries to resolve the situation. Representatives of three of the four main haulage companies – Northwards, DFDS, JBT and Streamline met with transport minister Graham Dey to discuss the issues.
There are concerns that the Scottish Government is not appreciating the “economic value to the nation of having a properly functioning ferry service.
Goods from Shetland contribute handsomely to the Scottish economy and the hauliers point out the seafood industry alone is worth in excess of £350 million.
Seafood exports constitute 40% of the Shetland Islands region’s freight exports One official close to the issue said: “If Scotland is serious about independence and running its own affairs, then something has to change. The economic side of this seriously lacking.
It comes amidst a growing crisis over lifeline ferry services across Scotland’s islands.
Hauliers say the issue with lack of capacity on Northlink ferry services serving Shetland has been known about for years.
Last year outsourcing giant Serco signed the £450m contract with the Scottish Government to continue managing and operating the lifeline services for passengers and freight between the Scottish mainland and the Orkney Islands and Shetland Islands. The new contract is due to run until June 20, 2026, with the option of a further two years, worth a further £160m.
It has run the lifeline service on behalf of the Scottish Government since 2012.
Over £2 million worth of fresh fish left behind on Lerwick’s quayside on a day in 2018 because there was not enough space on the ferries.
Now hauliers say that loaded trailers were delayed by anything from one to three days, which – particularly in the case of fresh produce – can put the viability of selling these products under what they described as severe threat.
Meanwhile, returning trailers have had to wait up to four days or more.
The haulage companies have been particularly affected because of the rise of livestock shipments since last week.
One operator had 35 trailers delayed on their return to the mainland, another had 12 trailers delayed in getting back to Shetland to collect seafood exports and another had nine loaded trailers left behind on Monday and Tuesday.
Northwards director Neil Leslie said: “This is just a snapshot of the huge problem that hauliers and our customers face in shipping freight in and out of the islands. It is a problem that has been well communicated over many years to Transport Scotland and the Scottish government but which has brought absolutely nothing in the way of a solution.
“We are working closely and constructively with NorthLink. However, the lack of available space on the current service means that the ferry operator has constantly to prioritise and select what they can and cannot accommodate. The priority is for perishable goods and, at this time, livestock and returning livestock trailers. The rest must wait on the quayside, which is now not only a problem for us and our customers but is also a growing problem between hauliers and the harbour authorities.”
Hauliers said that if some 40 trailers are sitting in Lerwick it means between £800,000 and £2.4m of equipment doing nothing.
Meanwhile the harbour authorities in some cases, charge a £35.70 nightly trailer fee.
Mr Leslie added: “We have heard the argument that there is capacity on the Saturday/Sunday freight service, but this is simply not practical or affordable for hauliers, who would be forced to move to a seven-day week service when many customers do not operate or accept weekend deliveries.
“It is an argument, too, that ignores the perishable nature of many of the goods transported. Extending the delivery time for such goods over a weekend will clearly result in deterioration or worse of their quality and their value.
“Freight is generating millions of pounds into the public purse, with Northwards alone spending over £2 million on the service to June this year. In return, we expect a service on which we can depend. This is an extremely serious threat to the economy of Shetland and to the many businesses whose existence relies on transportation.
“While the government has commissioned new freight vessels, these will not be ready until 2026/27. Meanwhile the lifeblood of Shetland’s economy – the very wellbeing of these islands – is being drained. A short-term solution in the form of additional tonnage, that is to say another vessel, must be found – and found as a matter of urgency.
“We have lobbied and pleaded with Transport Scotland and the government over many, many months and years to address this issue but with a depressing lack of success. The figures published today will hopefully bring home to the agency and the government exactly what is happening right now. We cannot let this situation continue. For Shetland and indeed for Scotland, we need action.”
A Transport Scotland spokesman said: “Whilst acknowledging that the planned development of two new freight vessels would address the issue in the longer term, the minister [Mr Dey] also assured that work was underway to explore potential shorter term actions that could alleviate some pressures on the busiest sailings. “The Minister was clear about the importance of supporting commercial freight traffic for the economic wellbeing of key rural industries and our island communities.”
Mr Dey also said they were also would continue to look for opportunities for suitable second hand vessels that could be added to the West Coast or Northern Isles fleets.