Crucial connectivity

When Serco was awarded an extension to its contract to manage and operate NorthLink Ferries in April 2018, it was no surprise that Transport Scotland had trusted the international services company to continue providing a lifeline service for freight and passengers for the Northern Isles, on the routes connecting the Scottish mainland with the Orkney and Shetland islands. Since winning the original six-year contract in 2012, valued at £350 million, Serco has made substantial investments in NorthLink Ferries, bringing a range of improvements and innovations to the fleet and the service alike. Therefore, it was just natural for the company to receive the opportunity to carry on developing NorthLink Ferries’ offering for another 18 months, through to 31 October 2019.

As a result of Serco’s efforts, the ferry service has seen a ten per cent increase in the number of passengers carried, taking the total to over 1.7 million, as well as carrying 20 per cent more vehicles since the beginning of the contract. The passenger increase coincides with recent VisitScotland tourism figures, which highlighted a rise in visitors to Orkney by 20 per cent since 2013, while the number of visitors to Shetland increased by ten per cent over the same period. Also demonstrative of the good job the business is doing, is the result of a survey carried out among passengers, 99 per cent of which rated their overall experience with NorthLink Ferries as positive, providing much-valued feedback to the operator.

The upgrade of on-board facilities, including the introduction of reclining sleeping pods, as well as the launch of a premium lounge service, together with a commitment to serving locally-produced food and drink in each vessel’s on-board restaurants and bars, are just few of the improvements developed by Serco in just over six years. The latest addition to the business’ offering is a new mobile app launched in the summer of 2018, which provides the passengers with a convenient digital platform to view timetables and book sailings. Designed to reflect the increasing number of visitors to the Northern Isles and to support its regular customers as they seek to book on the go, the app reflects the shift in people’s digital behaviour.

With more people increasingly looking to be able to do more online with the brands they engage with, NorthLink Ferries has taken the decision to introduce a new digital channel to assist its customers in the booking process. A great new addition to its website, the booking app seamlessly incorporates every element that its customers can choose to experience on-board with it, as they travel to and from Orkney and Shetland.

Embracing the UN’s World Oceans Day, which fell on 8 June this year, Serco NorthLink Ferries revealed that it is taking decisive steps to reduce its use of single-use plastic and minimise its carbon footprint. In September 2017, the company removed all disposable cups and plastic lids from its passenger cabins and since then, it has also removed all plastic straws, cotton buds, portion pots, and polystyrene cups, replacing them with veg ware and reusable alternatives. It is also close to completing a phase out of plastic-lined cold drinks cups. As of March this year, nearly 77 per cent of its waste is recycled and 15 per cent is converted to energy, with only eight per cent ending up in landfill.

Based amidst a close-knit community, Serco NorthLink Ferries often contributes to its wellbeing, thus forging the relationship it has established with the local people of the Northern Isles and confirming the central socioeconomic role it plays in the region. In one of the more recent examples of community-oriented activity undertaken by the company, Serco NorthLink Ferries donated £2090 to the Royal National Lifeboat Association (RNLI) Longhope lifeboat. The sum was raised from an annual staff survey, which saw a donation made to the RNLI for every completed response, continuing a long-established tradition started by the company to give the proceedings from the survey back to the local community.

Similarly, NorthLink Ferries supported the community outreach programme organised by the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB), which delivers outdoor education to young people across the islands, with a donation of £2200. Raised during a wildlife cruise, the funds were a welcome contribution to the charity’s attempts to familiarise local Orkney children with the natural world around them.

The coming months will be of utmost importance to NorthLink Ferries, as the tendering process for the next ferry contract began in late September, when the contract notice was published by the Scottish Government. The eight-year contract is worth an estimated £370 million and is expected to be awarded next summer.

Having enjoyed a successful spell in the last few years under Serco’s able navigation, the horizon looks clear for NorthLink Ferries to carry on gliding ahead, remaining a staple in the Northern Isles local community and providing a vital connection to Scotland’s captivating beauty for visitors from all over the world.

NorthLink Ferries
Serco was awarded a 1.5-year contract extension to operate the service until October 2019
Reported a ten per cent increase in passenger numbers since 2012
Recently launched a new mobile app