SHETLAND is urgently pushing ministers for tunnels to cut the dependence on an ageing ferry fleet - as they hit major financial difficulties in running services, it has emerged.

Vessels serving Shetland's islands have an average age of 30 years old and are said to be the number one cause of carbon emissions for the local authority.

Shetland is now planning to spend £400,000 to £600,000 to examine the future of transport on the islands - and the provision of toll tunnels at the cost of an estimated £400m has been laid down as an option.

Orkney representatives have indicated that they are looking at bridges between islands to reduced the number of ferry services needed, because rock structures make tunnels unsuitable.

Shetland council and the regional transport partnership ZetTrans have said that it wants a collaboration with ministers to pursue fixed links which would cut costs and help encourage people to stay on the islands and to grow the population.

In the current financial year, Shetland Islands Council received £17.5m that was ring-fenced for ferries but said that it required £23.5m in the next financial year. In 2021/22 the ferry service ran at a £5.5m deficit having spent £22.9m.

But the council says that the extra money has not been made available by ministers leaving the service in a "critical condition".

And Moraig Lyall, chairman of ZetTrans and the council's environment and transport committee has criticised Transport Scotland for failing to be pro-active on the issue.

Shetland is an archipelago containing about 100 islands - 16 of which are inhabited. They include Yell, the second most northerly occupied island in the UK.

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It is connected to the Shetland mainland by a three-mile ferry journey which usually takes about 20 minutes, but the ferries can be halted by severe weather or breakdowns.

A fleet of 12 ferries - with the oldest MV Hendra being 40-year-old - provides ferry services connecting mainland Shetland with outlying islands. Services run from 15 terminals eight islands providing a vital link for nearly 3,500 people.

The Herald:

 The Eysturoy Tunnel on the Faroes

Ferry services operate to Bressay, Fair Isle, Papa Stour, Foula, Whalsay, Skerries, Unst, Yell and Fetlar.

Now the council and ZetTrans has warned that without the additional millions the local authority will be placed in an "unsustainable" postion in funding inter-island ferry services.

They have said in an analysis: "It is no longer adequate to rely on a network of inter-island ferry services, even if the necessary revenue and capital investment can be secured [in a] long term basis "The next generation of inter-island connectivity must be by way of fixed links rather than ferries where appropriate "Fixed links have substantially lower operating costs relative to ferries and, although the initial capital investment is significant, they would deliver substantially greater value for money overall, with far lower financial uncertainty and risk, as well as a long-term reduction in carbon emissions.

"Fixed links would transform island economies and Shetland as a whole and would ensure a sustainable economic and social future for the archipelago was well as addressing the need to achieve net zero.

The Herald:

MV Hendra - the oldest of the Shetland council fleet

"There is an opportunity to stabilise or perhaps reduce the ongoing revenue burden through considering how that already established funding can be used addressing the challenge of securing capital funding to build fixed links."

The Faroe Islands, lying north west of Shetland, is made up of a series of 18 islets in the North Atlantic and has 21 tunnels - three of which are subsea.

The council and ZetTrans added: "The Scottish Government should collaborate with Shetland Islands Council and ZetTrans on migrating from ferries to fixed links as the next generation of inter-island connectivity.

"This should take the form of proportionate financial contributions to the completion of business cases across the inter-island network bearing in mind that Scottish Government will receive much of the benefit though stabilising or even reducing ongoing revenue burdens and future capital funding burdens currently faced by them. "

Ms Lyall has told MSPs that the the standstill budget for ferries sees the council "staring down a hole in our finances that we don't know how to fill" and with "difficult choices".

She said: "We are looking to advance tunnels as an alternative to ferries. As far as I am aware there is not a lot of conversation with Transport Scotland with regards tunnels. "Very much, when we try to engage with them about our internal ferry service, the message we get back from them, is it is your ferries and your problem. As we are looking to advance tunnels as an alternative to ferries, they are seeing it in the same ball park, they are saying it is not our issue, it is your issue.

"Transport Scotland do not seem to be a very proactive organisations, they don't seem to be one that is terribly flexible or forward thinking, they don't appear to be willing to look at alternatives to things they are already focussed on."

She said the extra millions needed for running the ferry network was needed to pay for the rising cost of fuel, wages and maintenance.

She said communities were "passionate" about a move to tunnels.

The islands of Yell and Unst recently formed tunnel action groups because they were "pressing" to get this done.

At present, the journey from Scotland's most northerly inhabited island Unst to Lerwick on the mainland would involve two ferries and a 45-minute drive.

The Unst to Yell car ferry

Ms Lyall told MSPs:"Within the Shetland network, people travel every day on these ferries. It's how the students get to college, it's how people get to their work, it's how everyone goes to the supermarket, the doctor's appointments every single day and therefore, this is a service that we cannot cut without it having serious implications for all sorts of other aspects of our life in the islands."

She added:"The requirement to move towards Net Zero is a duty that the Scottish Government has put on us as a local authority. It is a duty that we will be singularly unable to meet unless we begin to get rid of our ferry fleet. And this will help us to go a long way towards fulfilling that duty that is upon us, if we could get some of our fairies replaced by tunnels."

A Transport Scotland spokesperson said: "Last year we published the second Strategic Transport Projects Review (STPR2), setting out 45 recommendations for future transport investment over the next 20 years.

“STPR2 did not consider the replacement of local ferry services by fixed links. This was out of scope, given it is a matter for the local authorities who manage and operate these.

“However we recognise the importance of these internal services to the Northern Isles and have provided local authorities with over £136 million of investment in the last five years to support their operation. For this financial year more than £33 million has been made available, including over £17 million for Shetland Islands Council.”