My thoughts on Transport

The urgent need for replacement ferries was reinforced over the last week by the disruption caused when the Varagan was taken out of service a matter of weeks after returning from refit. During my recent visits to the south isles, the message was the same.

The age of the fleet means that maintenance and fuel costs are increasing. Any delay in replacing vessels, therefore, risks throwing good money after bad. SNP Ministers insist the cost of new ferries must be borne by OIC. That is unreasonable and out of step with what happens elsewhere in Scotland.

We need action on this soon if boats are to be ordered and built. This, therefore, must be an early priority for any incoming Scottish Government post-May.

Of course, our internal ferry and air services need to work effectively together. The Council will consult on this shortly, providing an opportunity for isles residents to shape the services they wish to see. Already, though, there are capacity issues on many flights, something which must be factored in when decisions are taken about future provision.

Better integration can also be achieved with bus services. This should include timetabling, but also ticketing and real-time information for the travelling public, both locals and visitors.

Our internal air and ferry services are lifelines for the communities they serve. So too our external transport links. As such they need to be affordable, reliable and of good quality.

It is outrageous, therefore, that the SNP government chose to exclude Orkney from its cheap ferry fares scheme over the last eight years. This has cost local businesses, particularly in our vital tourism sector, and put Orkney at a competitive disadvantage.

Tens of millions of pounds have been used to halve fares on west coast routes. Orkney should have access to similar support to reduce fares to, from and within our islands.

With the new Northern Isles ferry contract up for renewal in 2018, lessons must be learned from last time. I was pleased Ministers accepted calls from me and others to keep the two routes linked and for Stromness to be specified in the tender. The cuts to the Stromness-Scrabster timetable, however, represent a major reduction in service not seen anywhere else in the country.

On our external air services, I welcome the increase in ADS support to 50%, as well as a u-turn by Ministers on local charities and voluntary groups accessing the scheme. Businesses, however, remain excluded, after the SNP cut support with no warning or consultation.

If anything, though, reliability remains the biggest concern. It has affected everyone from patients attending hospital in Aberdeen to businesses and holidaymakers. I have campaigned hard on this issue for over three years and am pleased Loganair has invested in engineering support and a new spares hub in Glasgow. This now needs to be translated into sustained improvement,

In an island setting, transport is fundamental to everything we do. If re-elected in May, delivering the improvements set out above would be my priority over the next five years.

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