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Optimised Sustainable Combinations of Air and Sea Travel to Remote Island Communities: Glasgow meeting of 4 February 2020

Thomas Schoenbergd

Thomas Schoenberg.

© John Yellowlees, 2020

Thomas Schoenberg on speok to the Glasgow meetingon "Optimised Sustainable Combinations of Air and Sea Travel to Remote Island Communities".

Remote islands need good transport links to support their populations, economies and communities and to provide access to services. Challenges to delivery arise from people's rising expectations, changing socio-economic circumstances, seasonal variations ?in demand and from the need to coordinate with mainland transport.

The three small Inner Hebridean islands of Tiree (population 653), Coll (195) and Colonsay (124) all rely for employment on public services, tourism and farming, with Coll also having crofting and Colonsay a brewery.

Coll and Tiree share a daily sailing from Oban that is Wednesdays excepted in winter. The ferry to Colonsay runs from Oban or Kennacraig, and is Tuesdays, Thursdays and Sundays excepted in winter. Passenger numbers are about three times as high in summer as in winter to Coll and Tiree, and four times as high to Colonsay.

Out-and-back air services to Coll and Tiree and to Colonsay using an 8-seater Islander aircraft started from Oban Airport in 2008 with support from Argyll and Bute Council, and at the time of Thomas's study ran twice-weekly plus weekend flights for scholars. With average occupancy at 40%, better marketing could improve loading factors, and there is a desire for greater frequency offering a same day return opportunity from the islands and scope to spend long weekends there which would especially be attractive for tourists.

These small aircraft are much more environmentally friendly than the comparatively big ships such as the Lord of Isles, generating 0.215 tonnes of carbon dioxide per hour as compared with the latter's 1.953. The sea crossing has to be very full to come into its own environmentally, but of course the ship is the only way of conveying vehicles. At the island end of the journey, since the demise of postbuses a car or bicycle may be needed by air travellers as the airfields are remote from the villages.

A stopover on the islands could be optimised by offering more frequent flight or ferry options with longer turnarounds. The ships now used no longer provide overnight accommodation for either passengers or crew. Its smaller environmental impact makes air more attractive for supporting additional journeys, but account has also to be taken of the different impacts of bad weather.

The North Atlantic Oscillation causes weather variability by shifting the jetstream. For ferries it is the January waves and gales that are most likely to force cancellation of sailings. Aircraft may not be able to cope with ice and snow on the runway, with crosswinds and with poor visibility in fog. Air disruption is greater and over a longer period of the year than sea, though there is anecdotal evidence that captains may be becoming more risk-averse than in the past.

Emerging technologies could provide drones for freight transport, offering greater resilience and even less carbon dioxide emission than aircraft, and Vertical Take Off and Landing craft for passengers providing more demand-responsiveness and possible reliance on locally-generated energy replacing the need to transport aviation fuel to Oban.

Any proposals for change have to be sifted through an analytical triangle of accessibility, economic appraisal and affordability. Since the completion of the study, in the absence of a Public Service Obligation Argyll and Bute Council was obliged by the £280 per head subsidy to reduce its support from twice-weekly to just one flight a week, and one might ask why are such lifeline air services subject to much less attention by central government than that given to ferry reviews. The ongoing application of Road Equivalent Tariffs cutting fares for passengers accompanied by vehicles has continued the upsurge in people taking cars, which could be a threat to the viability of connecting public transport - on some Hebridean routes customers have to book their cars up to a fortnight in advance. Across the Highlands the infrastructure is struggling to cope with an upsurge in tourist numbers prompted by favourable exchange rates, the comparatively low cost of motoring and greater awareness arising from such phenomena as North Coast 500 and Outlander, with a folk festival on Tiree being one local manifestation.

The impact of health changes is significant, for the public sector is the main user of flights as nurses and doctors fit day visit into their schedules (so the Council is in effect subsidising NHS Highland) while centralisation of healthcare provision may be obliging islanders to make more and longer visit to the mainland - but delivery of drugs could lead the way on use of drones. With only Tiree having a secondary school, scholars form the backbone of demand for flights from the islands, but could face-to-face teaching be supplemented by virtual classrooms?

An electric Islander is reportedly going to be tested in Orkney, and perhaps the islands could form a useful testbed for the trialling of hydrogen vehicles to improve their internal connectivity. Notwithstanding the current controversy over ship procurement, could be a more economical type of vessel be deployed, and would there be scope for short-sea crossings from the nearest landfall rather than the present geography of ferry routes?

Thomas's paper supported by the Scottish Transport Studies Group was presented at last year's European Transport Conference in Dublin. Now it only remains for him to visit the three islands, but one can see why he will have to check their timetables very carefully!

CILT is grateful to University of Strathclyde for hosting the event.

Report and photograph by John Yellowlees.

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