A recent incident which has seen ferry services connecting the Estonian mainland to its two largest islands, Saaremaa and Hiiumaa, cut to three vessels from its regular four, has led to fresh calls for a fifth ship to be added to the roster, with discussions at cabinet level likely to take place soon.
The vessel is planned to enter into service no earlier than 2024, however.
Kaupo Läänerand, Undersecretary of Maritime Affairs at the Ministry of Economic Affairs and Communications, said that: "Recent years … have shown that the probability of various obstacles may be high," Läänerand said, adding that the fall of 2024 would be viable assuming there are no hold-ups in tech component supply.
An accident last week which put one of the largest ferries, the Tõll, out of action, has highlighted once again how narrow a margin TS Laevad works on in keeping the connection going, following 2019 discussions about a possible fifth vessel.
The Tõll struck the quay at Kuivastu, the port on the island of Muhu, which serves Saaremaa (the two islands are connected by a causeway road) causing minor damage which needs repairing.
A vessel which connects Hiiumaa to the mainland, the Tiiu, was requisitioned to replace the Tõll, while the 50-year-old Regula kept up the Hiiumaa link, sparking protests from residents, who have claimed favoritism towards the larger island.
The Tõll struck the quay at Kuivastu, the port on the island of Muhu, which serves Saaremaa (the two islands are connected by a causeway road) casing minor damage which needs repairing.
The other ferry, the Piret, is being retained on her Saaremaa route as well.
Kaupo Läänerand said the issue is on the table at cabinet level, however.
He said: "Next month, the government should be discussing the construction of a fifth ferry, via funding."
Economics affairs minister Taavi Aas (Center) had previously said that the additional ferry will improve connections and passenger volumes, and would be, like the Tõll, a hybrid vessel able to run on both diesel and electric power. The ship's battery would be charged up via a connection tot he onshore grid when in harbor, he said.
The Transport Agency (Transpordiamet) is set to announce a public procurement process for the planned ferry at the end of this year, while the actual procurement is scheduled to be concluded in the second half of 2022, with a view to the tender winners starting construction of the ship soon after that.
Läänerand added that the two years that follow, i.e. 2022-2024, will be used for testing the new vessel.
The procurement will be on an international basis, he added.
The likely technical specifications had been discussed already between agency, ministry and local authorities, Kaupo Läänerand said, though the price tag is not yet known.
The entire process all hinges on cabinet approval, however.
The Tõll, Tiiu and Piret are all only a few years old, with the first of these more recently converted to hybrid capabilities.
TS Laevad is a subsidiary of the part-state-owned Port of Tallinn (Tallinna Sadam).
Flights also connect Saaremaa and Hiiumaa to Tallinn Airport, and several additional connections were laid on over the weekend.
The usual ticket-booking system was suspended over the weekend in favor of a first-come, first-serve system, which led to long vehicle wait lines, though those traveling by bus or on foot were given precedence.
While travelers were urged to take a bus rather than bring their own vehicle, the president herself had traveled in a car as a passenger on the Tõll when the incident took place last Wednesday. Her car, a personal one rather than an official presidential vehicle, was damaged in the collision.
The configuration in the normal run of things is Saaremaa: Three ferries, Hiiumaa: One or Two. Whether the fifth addition would lead to a 3:2/3 configuration has not been reported and would likely depend on the capacity of the new ship relative to the other vessels. As noted the Regula was laid down 50 years ago - in West Germany - so how much of her service life remains is also not clear.
While the proposed new ferry is reported in the media as being the fifth to serve the islands, there are in fact already five vessels working the routes - to the above listed should be added the Leiger, which often serves Hiiumaa.
Editor: Andrew Whyte