Thursday, August 01, 2002

Canada's Troubled Ferry System: Waking up to a Growing Problem

For me, a vacation on either coast of Canada isn't complete without a ride on a big car ferry. We have even gone out of our way on some vacations to take a ferry, at no small expense, so that we could have that been-on-a-boat feeling. On trips to PEI, I used to cross my fingers in hopes of arriving just in time for a ride on the mighty MV Abegweit and used to get upset if we had to ride on the MV Holiday Island instead. I think last summer was the highlight, when my mother and I took The Cat between Yarmouth, Nova Scotia, and Bar Harbour, Maine, which was by far the coolest machine I've had the pleasure of riding on. It's this giant, 300 ft, catamaran behemoth, traveling at 90 km/hr....just amazing. But other than the cat, I've noticed that many of Canada's ferries are aging, and they're not aging very well.

Ferry services are vital to the island economies of Newfoundland and Vancouver Island, BC. They can't survive on air cargo and passenger service alone. Trucks carrying goods and carloads of people traveling on business or on vacation travel to and from these islands by the thousands each day during the summer. The ferries aren't cheap, but they usually run on time, are reliable, and offer fairly comfortable service.

This morning, however, I was reading an article on the CBC website which revealed that some of these ferries may not be as safe as we are led to believe. Transport Canada carried out an audit in November of last year and discovered that the ferries running to Newfoundland between Port aux Basques, Nfld., and North Sydney, N.S., were unprepared to deal with emergencies, with blocked escape routes, open fire doors, and staff who are poorly trained to deal with emergencies, jeopardizing the lives of passengers and crew. Since then, Marine Atlantic, the Crown Corporation which owns the vessels, has spent nearly $2 million to improve safety aboard their ships....but with approximately 500,000 passengers a year making the trip to Newfoundland, there should have been greater care taken with passengers' safety long before now.

Nor does this seem to be an isolated incident this year. In an article dated June 27th, 2002, BC Ferries rebutted the accusations made by the Ferry Worker's Union that their ferries were unsafe. Among the union's concerns were that the Crown company was using rusting lifeboat equipment, fading radar screens and failing ramp cables on some of their ferries crossing to Vancouver Island. The union also said that "almost half the ships are in the last quarter of their usable lives, including major ferries on the Vancouver-Victoria route and Nanaimo-Horseshoe Bay run." BC Ferries have denied the accusations, saying that they were based on outdated information and all of their equipment had been regularly inspected by Transportation Canada. While they admitted that their ferry fleet was aging, they say they have "a long-term plan to replace ships and maintain service and safety" including $50 million a year in maintenance.

BC Ferries has tried to update its fleet before, with disastrous results. In 1996, BC Ferries commissioned the construction of two new "fast ferries" that they dubbed "PacifiCats". These all-aluminum catamaran vessels, much like "The Cat" that I mentioned before, were promoted as a 100 km/hr replacement for existing ferries on the Georgia Strait that would cut travel times in half, representing the future of the ferry service between Vancouver and the Island. Right from the beginning, they had a huge price tag.

The three PacifiCat ferries, PacifiCat Explorer, PacifiCat Discovery, and PacifiCat Voyager, are now mothballed at the Nanaimo terminal. The total price tag for the ferry project is now over $460 million over-budget. The ferries were delivered 3 years late and, although they were supposed to cost $70 million per ferry, they ended up costing $210 million. They burnt more than twice the amount of diesel fuel per passenger per trip than conventional ferries do (raising environmental concerns), saved only 10 minutes in travel time (since they had to turn around at each end of every other trip in order to load/unload), and could not operate at top speed (which in the end, only turned out to be 70 km/hr., 30 less than they were designed for) since they created tsunamis from their wake which damaged docks and marinas along the shores near where they operated. They carry fewer passengers and vehicles than the conventional vessels they were built to replace. The PacifiCats were not designed to carry large trucks or campers and have a limited amount of space in the passenger areas for amenities.

Explorer was in active service for six months and Discovery was pulled after only three days! Worse still, Voyager was launched in 2000, after the decision had been made to mothball the PacifiCats, and never carried a single passenger. So now they sit in the harbour, mouldering away, waiting for someone to snap up the ships at the low, low, bargain basement price of $40 million apiece. Get 'em now, while you still can.

What a terrible waste. Maybe my rant has been a little unfocussed, but you get the idea. Ferries are important to the Canadian economy, especially when it comes to tourism and moving goods and services, and we need to make sure that they're safe and that replacements for the aging vessels don't end up costing taxpayers hundreds of millions of dollars for nothing. Transport Canada needs to make a detailed review of Canada's ferry fleets and propose strategies that are realistic (unlike the PacifiCats). If the PacifiCats aren't economical for a short ferry run between Vancouver and Victoria, maybe they should be traded to Marine Atlantic or another Crown ferry operator. With Transport's supervision, these vehicles wouldn't need to go to waste and could be put to greater use elsewhere.

That's it for now....back to feeling tired and loagie for me.


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