The main operations on the west coast, in terms of number of routes and traffic levels, are the services of Caledonian MacBrayne. In addition some services operating within Argyll & Bute and Highland are operated and/or procured by the local authorities. Orkney has a number of services to the Scottish mainland. Some are publicly supported routes which are provided by Northlink. Others are operated commercially by the private sector and Orkney's internal ferry services are funded by the local authority.
There are two main private operators in the HITRANS area, in terms of traffic volumes. These are Western Ferries which serves the Cowal peninsula; and Pentland Ferries which connects Orkney with mainland Scotland. Many of the ports used by the ferry services are owned by the public sector. This is either through Caledonian Maritime Assets Limited or local authorities. Some of the ports used by the major ferry services are operated by Trusts, while a number of private facilities are also used.
Bulk freight coastal services largely operate on a commercial basis. They generally cater for lower value and/or higher volume shipments more suited to coastal ships than ferries. Transport Scotland provides financial support to a container service between Aberdeen and Kirkwall.
The main roles of sea & waterborne transport are as follows:
- On many islands ferries are the only regular means of transport for people and goods.
- For some islands and peninsulas ferries are especially important in facilitating daily commuting and access to secondary education.
- Bulk coastal shipping moves economically important goods while reducing road miles compared to the use of ferries.
The main issues facing the ferry network include:
- Fare structures that are inconsistent between different traffic types and between apparently similar routes.
- Limited frequency of sailing on some routes.
- Reduced frequency and length of operating day during the winter.
- On some services, a lack of integration with other forms of public transport.