SCOTLAND’S flagship passenger ferry service to Europe is to be scrapped.
The three weekly sailings of the Scottish Viking, which was launched in a blaze of publicity in May last year by First Minister Alex Salmond, will cease operations in time for Christmas.
Passengers who have already booked trips for after then will be offered full refunds instead.
But DFDS – which recently took over the operators Norfolkline – say at just 60 per cent capacity the route is no longer economically viable.
It will now be replaced by two freight only vessels, with additional sailings.
The move will come as a potential blow to both the Fife and Scottish economies as it had been hailed as a vital route to the Continent.
It is also potentially hugely embarrassing for the Scottish Government given its high profile support for the venture.
First Minister Alex Salmond was among the VIP guests who launched the service in a blaze of publicity last May.
At the time he said: “It is vital for Scotland to maintain connections with major European markets in a time of global recession.
“Not only will this new link be a boost for Fife’s local economy, it will be an environmentally friendly route home for Scotland’s friends, family and visitors.”
DFDS said the route was not sustainable at current passenger levels at a time when fewer people are travelling because of economic uncertainty.
In a statement Andreas Teschl, Vice President of DFDS Group, said: “We are aware that the ferry service has provided an important link between Scotland and the Continent so it is a matter of deep regret that we have had to take the decision to no longer operate passenger services on the Rosyth to Zeebrugge route in the future.
“We know this decision will be disappointing to many people and we would like to thank all those who have supported us, particularly the Scottish Government, the travel and transport industry, as well as those passengers who have used the service and will continue to use the service until the end of the year.
“We can guarantee that the service will continue to provide a passenger service up to and including December 15 at least.
“However, we do believe the route has a future as a freight-only service and we not only want to keep the route alive but we want to enhance the service we offer to the freight industry.”
He said the new freight-only service will start once the passenger services ends in mid December, accommodating additional trailers, containers and up to 12 truck drivers per departure.
He added: “We will of course continue our talks with the Scottish Government in order to find possible, economically viable solutions to introduce a passenger service in the future.”
That was seized upon by opposition parties who said action had to be taken to save the passenger route.
Scottish Labour’s Shadow Minister for Transport Charlie Gordon MSP said: “This is a major setback for Scots as the service provided an alternative to aviation for those travelling between Scotland and the continent.
“The SNP Government must sit down with the company to look at options to keep this route open.”
Scottish Labour’s John Park, MSP for Mid Scotland and Fife MSP, warned any delays could prove costly.
He said: “This is obviously disappointing, especially as we have previously witnessed the problems faced by Rosyth in maintaining its international ferry links.
“The SNP Government failed to act in time to prevent the loss of the ferry’s freight service back in 2008 and the delay of over half a year in reinstating it was extremely costly to Scottish businesses.
“Norfolkline was recently taken over by DFDS, a company who only this week announced a 15% rise in its UK bookings, so if there specific issues around the Rosyth route, I hope the company will sit down with politicians from all parties to find a way forward.
He added: “I will be writing to the Transport Minister and repeating my calls for a route-development body for Scotland’s international ferry routes to be established to prevent this kind of thing happening again.”
Murdo Fraser, deputy leader of the Scottish Conservatives and List MSP for Mid-Scotland and Fife, said: “It is very disappointing news that the Rosyth-Zeebrugge ferry service will end its passenger service and this is a blow to Rosyth and to the Scottish tourism industry.
“The Rosyth-Zeebrugge passenger service only started up again in Spring 2009 and has been a popular service.
“It is vital that we have a ferry passenger service brought back as well as it being viable for the long-term.
“This was the only year round ferry service to mainland Europe, underlining its importance to Scotland and our tourism industry.”
But despite the blow for passengers, the Road Haulage Association said it welcomed the fact freight sailings would actually increase following the changes.
RHA Director for Scotland Phil Flanders said: “We fully understand that those who have been using the passenger service on this route will be disappointed in these changes.
“However, the fact remains that the are delighted that DFDS has acknowledged the importance of the route for freight traffic.
“For Scottish hauliers in particular, this route represents a vital gateway to the rest of Europe.
“The increase in sailing, combined with the added capacity that a freight-only service will being will result in huge savings in time and money.
“Above all, we are delighted that DFDS has acknowledged the vital role played by Scottish hauliers in the recovery of the economy.”
Previous operators Superfast pulled out from the route in September 2008 after six years despite carrying a claimed one million passengers and 4.2 million tonnes of freight.
It was estimated then it had delivered an average £3.4 million of tourism expenditure a year to Scotland, according to government figures.
Transport Minister, Stewart Stevenson, conceded disappointment over the move and called on the company to remain open minded.
He said: “We welcome the announcement by the company of an enhanced freight service from next year on the Rosyth-Zebrugge ferry route.
“However, it is extremely disappointing news that the company has decided to discontinue the passenger element of the service.
“Significant efforts to help promote the service had recently started to make progress in attracting increased passenger numbers.
“Unfortunately the company has reached a commercial decision that this progress was not sufficient to continue the route in its current form. We very much regret the decision by DFDS, although this is a commercial matter for them. “
He added: “We will though continue to work with the company who recognise the importance of ensuring that there is no break in freight services as the changes take place, and will be urging them to keep the decision to discontinue passenger services under review.”
The Scottish Viking which can carry 489 passengers and boasts more than 100 cabins was purpose built in 2009 in the Visentini Ship Yard in Italy.
It was revealed in May 2009 that the route would receive the maximum £1.8million available freight grant from the Scottish Government, paid in arrears, for switching lorries from roads.
It was expected to take 1.4 million lorries off Scotland’s roads each year with hopes its popularity would also see its passenger sailings, which were not subsidised, increase over time.
Hailing the announcement of route refloating in 2009 after previous operators Superfast pulled out, Mr Salmond said: “This is a critical link for Scotland, which has absolutely fundamental importance.
“We are looking for quite a substantial increase in passengers.”
The launch of the ferry suffered a blow on its maiden voyage when captain Antonio Arbilli suffered a heart attack before setting off on the historic voyage, eventually making a full recovery.
The news also comes just a fortnight after a 16-year-old boy was killed when the fishing vessel he was sailing in with his brother was sunk in a collision with the Scottish Viking off St Abbs near Eyemouth, Berwickshire.
Daniel McNeil, from Tynemouth in North Shields, was lost to the sea. His brother Joseph, 20, was rescued by the crew after the alarm was sounded about the collision with the prawn boat. The cause is still being investigated.
The axing of the route and timing was said to be unrelated.