22nd November 2022

Despite transport challenges this year the Caithness Transport Forum was pleased to hear of productive transport developments and advocacy within the North Highlands at its recent meeting in November. Members heard updates on the impacts of increased investment in the region.

Amongst the highlights of these successes is the Public Service Obligation (PSO) in place at Wick John O’Groats Airport which has now been running for six months. Providing a crucial network link designed to offer maximum opportunity for connections through Aberdeen Airport and on to further world-wide connectivity via London and Amsterdam, members of the Forum agreed that this flight service was a life-line link for the people and businesses of the North Highlands and hoped that patronage would continue to increase. Airport stakeholders continue to explore route development and the Forum expressed a desire for additional destinations.

Wick Harbour reported a productive year with vessels from the offshore wind industry utilising the harbour, and it is anticipated that this will continue for the 2023 operational period. The marina saw its busiest year since installation with 350 visiting vessels and a welcome upturn in local vessels using the facility.

The redeveloped St Ola Pier is providing a valuable addition to the port at Scrabster Harbour allowing for increased activity including cruise, cargo operations and storage, fishing and project mobilisation. Looking forward to 2023 prospective cruise bookings are highly encouraging. Scrabster Harbour announced a business network event taking place on the 1 December. The event is aimed at linking local tourist attractions and business with representatives from the cruise industry to encourage connections, explore opportunities and establish potential business partnerships.

The Forum also congratulated Serco NorthLink Ferries, as they celebrated 10 years successfully operating the vital ferry service from the Scottish Mainland to the Shetland and Orkney islands in July 2022. Providing daily connectivity for business and local communities Serco NorthLink Ferries reported a positive upturn in passenger carrying volumes, seeing an almost 50% increase against 2021 figures and signalling a return to pre-pandemic patronage of the service. An annual 7% increase on freight carriage was also announced which further highlights the important role NorthLink Ferries play in the supply chain and economic wellbeing of Northern Isles and far north communities[i].

Pentland Ferries also reported a positive upturn in passenger carrying volumes above pre-covid levels, despite the disruption to services during the summer. It was good to hear that customer service roles at Gills Harbour had been filled.

Whilst rail travel has been a challenge with the ongoing strikes, it was pleasing to hear that the improvements recommended by the Far North Rail Review Group[ii] established in 2016, were still moving ahead. In particular the Delmore Loop, which will make the route more reliable and allow for timetable enhancements to the Far North Line.

Members of the Forum acknowledged the difficulties faced across the transport sector caused by significant cost increases in relation to energy, fuel and construction materials in addition to staff shortages. Transport providers such as The Highland Council, Stagecoach, HIAL and Scotrail had all faced these significant challenges and the Forum recognised the work done to try and mitigate these and still deliver services and infrastructure maintenance and repairs.

Despite the positive updates the Forum expressed concern with regard the uncertainty of further rising business energy prices, rising inflation and a forecasted recession in 2023 putting a further strain on services.

Chair of the Caithness Transport Forum, Trudy Morris, said:

“As a Forum we work in partnership with transport providers and stakeholders to lobby the Scottish Government on the pertinent issues and complex distinctions of our region. The Caithness Transport Forum is committed to advocating for the economic, social and environmental interests of businesses and residents of Caithness.

We fully appreciate the fiscally challenging environment the two governments are facing. However, if the ambitious targets laid out by the Just Transition Commission and the Programme for Government are to be successfully realised and are truly just and equitable, it needs innovative solutions and commitment from the Scottish Government which engage with and deliver the needs of those living, working, operating and investing in remote and rural locations such as the North Highlands.” 

Further details of the Caithness Transport Forum can be found online at https://www.caithnesschamber.com/what-we-do/contracts-funded-projects/caithness-transport-forum/

[i] NorthLink Ferries 2021 freight figures not adversely affected by pandemic measures –https://www.northlinkferries.co.uk/news/statistics/

[ii] https://www.transport.gov.scot/public-transport/rail/far-north-line-review-group/

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