Ferry queues are here to stay

Parvlaevajärjekorrad Kuivastu sadamas on tagasi.

PHOTO: Erik Prozes

Up to five hours of waiting to get on ferryboats at Kuivastu and Virtsu ports on popular travel days - the new normal for folks headed to Saaremaa, this summer and in all likelihood also the next.

According to contract signed in 2006 and still valid, Hiiumaa and Saaremaa lines are to be serviced with ferryboats with space for up to 400 linear metres of vehicles and 400 passengers. Even with the ships now sailing between Kuivastu-Virtsu and Heltermaa-Rohuküla, the requirements are met. Thus, no-one may find fault with Väinamere Liinid, the company operating the lines.

The norms, already present in earlier contracts, are obsolete and outdated – according to statistics. Väinamere Liinid statistics say that since 1995 the number of vehicles travelling Kuivastu-Virtsu line is up 2.6 times, and 1.4 times as compared to ten years ago. The increase is the same on Heltermaa-Rohuküla line.

As ships twice the minimal norm used to service the lines for quite a while, the lines disappeared and the people travelling to the isles got used to not having to wait as was the usual in 1990ies. Ferryboats Saaremaa and Muhumaa having moved to Germany, the old times are back.

Third ship needed

The 2006 contract signed by Väinamere Liinid CEO Tõnis Rihvk and economy minister Edgar Savisaar also specifies that the frequency of trips shall be determined the yearly orders by the ministry. The number of vessels on both lines ought to be derived from the specific order i.e. how many vessels it takes to do the required amount of daily trips. It is only for the winter period that the contract prescribes two ships each for both lines.

As the capacity of vessels in the contract cannot be altered, and Väinamere Liinid is not too interested in bringing bigger ships, the queues could be cut by having more trips which would probably meaning a third vessel added to Saaremaa line.

Saare County mayor Kaido Kaasik said Kuivastu-Virtsu line would be in urgent need for the third ship. «With two, it obviously does not work. People got used to the good connection, the entrepreneurs have counted on that, and made investments,» he said. «As I understand it, there is readiness in the shipping company.»

As assured us by economy ministry shipping and aviation department head Jaak Kaabel, Väinamere Liinid has promised to offer a fitting extra ship.

The company’s CEO Mr Rihvk would not explicitly confirm that to Postimees, alluding that it depends on the state. «Maintaining sufficient connection with the major islands in changing circumstances requires joint efforts by both parties,» he said. «The carrier guarantees the contractual vessels minimally, the state can order additional trips, and in case of need additional measures will be agreed to boost the ferrying capacity.»

Trips up to state budget

Ferrying capacity and amount of trips are agreed yearly as the state budget gets confirmed i.e. depending on much money is allotted to subsidise the connection.

For instance: in 2015, the minimal number of daily trips on Rohuküla-Heltermaa line is ten, five to the island and five back. For Virtsu-Kuivastu line, the amount is 28. The largest daily amounts are 24 and 58, respectively.

All trips over and above the order will be separately covered by the state. The carrier is obliged to take the trip in case at least a hundred linear metres of vehicles are waiting in the harbour, and they do have an available and fitting vessel. But they do not have to have the latter.

Therefore, it would be better not to have extra trips but ordered trips – then, the carrier would be contractually obliged to do it, and find a vessel for it.

However, the state i.e. economy ministry is alluding that while the carrier claims they are coping, the third vessel will not be asked for. Because all who wish to take the trip will get serviced, so what if they have to wait in a line.

State waiting for new ships

«From next fall, new ferries will arrive for the lines which will surely improve the situation. Till then, best use must be made of the existing ones, and if really needed then ships must be added. But the carrier is the best to provide the initial assessment,» said Mr Kaabel.

The state is visibly uninterested in ordering the third ship this year. «There are two weeks to go till the peak season is over; after that we will discuss the carrier’s plans for the period with fewer passengers – for the fall, the winter, the spring, and the next summer till the fall when the new ferries of Port of Tallinn should arrive for the lines,» said Mr Kaabel.

When it comes to the cost of ordering extra trips requiring a third vessel, the ministry is still busy calculating that. Mr Kaabel says next summer may not be the same, though. «The next year, just as this one, will be determined on basis of need and agreed with the carrier,» he said.

Till then, Hiiumaa joins Saaremaa in sufferings. Namely, the large new ferry Hiiumaa, contractually to service the Hiiumaa line, was switched to Saaremaa line as agreed with the ministry.

«The carrier has assured us that this way they are able to ferry all passengers faster, and stick to the schedule with both islands,» said Mr Kaabel.