British Columbia

Plenty of apologies, but no quick fix for frustrated BC Ferries customers

BC Ferries CEO Mark Collins and his public relations team have been doing a lot of apologizing lately. Based on the state of the aging fleet, that's not likely to end soon.

Mechanical breakdowns, delays and cancellations have dogged BC Ferries this year

Passengers and vehicles wait to board a ferry at Tsawwassen terminal where the Queen of Alberni was taken out of service earlier this week.

BC Ferries CEO Mark Collins and his public relations team have been doing a lot of apologizing lately, and based on the state of the aging fleet, that's not likely to end soon.

Last weekend, it was because the 54-year-old Queen of New Westminster broke down for the second time in a month, leaving hundreds of passengers stranded on the Vancouver-Victoria route.

"We certainly apologize for the inconvenience they experience. We do all we can to keep our ferries reliable," Collins told CBC Radio after the weekend.

The Queen of New Westminster ferry, left, was out of service last weekend on the Tsawwassen to Swartz Bay route. (BC Ferries)

Before that, it was the Coastal Inspiration ferry his team was apologizing for, after it was pulled from service for 11 days from the Vancouver-Nanaimo route, throwing the travel plans of hundreds into chaos over the Canada Day long weekend.

And when the Queen of Cumberland was taken out of service on the Southern Gulf Island route in May, there were so many complaints that the ferry service added a special apology to the automated greeting for the reservation line.

"Please accept my personal apologies for the service interruptions," the recording from Collins said. "I know the past two weeks have been very challenging to you."

BC Ferries' Queen of Cumberland vessel was taken out service in May for a couple weeks after a davit broke during a training exercise, hospitalizing two crew members. (BC Ferries)

Too many old vessels to replace

Other recent apologies coming from the BC Ferries office have included breakdowns of the Northern Adventure in Prince Rupert and the Salish Eagle in the Southern Gulf Islands.

And then on Wednesday, the 42-year-old Queen of Alberni broke down on the Vancouver-Duke Point route.

But BC Ferries has not been able to provide many solutions for the mechanical mishaps.

One reason is the vessels are aging; roughly half the major vessels on the main routes are between 37 and 42 years old.

These aging workhorses accounted for 20 of 23 cancellations for mechanical reasons on those routes in 2016, according to data obtained by CBC.

BC Ferries vice-president Mark Wilson says the average age of ships in the fleet is 31 years and BC Ferries needs to replace up to 15 of its 35 ships over the next 10 to 15 years just to stay afloat.

Just last week, BC Ferries revealed plans to build five new large ferries to replace those aging vessels.

The new 2,100-passenger vessels would increase capacity on all the main routes. But the first would not be in service before 2024, with one following every year until 2029.

The Queen of Cowichan is one of five C-class vessel built between 1976 and 1981 that remain the workhorses on its main routes. (BC Ferries)

A similar plan is in the works to replace up to four of the smaller ferries, many of which are up to 60 years old.

But that's only nine vessels, and with design work just starting this year, it will take at least five to 10 years to see those ships afloat.

No backups in the fleet

But it's not just the older vessels that triggered so many apologies from BC Ferries brass this year.

With traffic hitting record highs, when a key ship like the 10-year-old Coast Inspiration breaks down like it did last month, BC Ferries has no vessel to bring in as a replacement.

At 60 years of age, the North Island Princess is one of the oldest vessels still working on the BC Ferries fleet. It works the Powell River to Texada Island route. (Kam Abbott)

"BC Ferries regrets that it will not be able to move customers to the next available sailing, as reservations are near capacity for all sailings," said the apology issued as the breakdown was extended several extra days.

Collins said during peak season, when traffic is highest, every ship is in use, so there are no backup vessels at this time of year.

When asked if BC Ferries has plans to build that backup capacity, Collins would only say, "it may be wise in the future to add another new vessel to our fleet."

Not that bad really?

One person familiar with the reliability of BC Ferries is Green MLA and transportation critic Adam Olsen, who represents the riding of Saanich North and the Islands, where thousands of residents and tourists depend on the service.

"We have a ferry system that — for the greatest part — does a good job," Olsen said. "When the cancellations happen we certainly hear about it in our office."

And BC Ferries spokesperson Deborah Marshall noted that only six of the 500 scheduled sailings across the entire fleet were cancelled last Sunday.

The Coastal Inspiration was built in Germany in 2008 and is one of the newest large ships in the fleet. But it was out of service for 11 days, including the Canada Day long weekend already this summer. (BC Ferries)

In fact last year, BC Ferries, which is the third largest ferry service in the world, moved 8.3 million vehicles and 21 million people — and the vast majority of those trips were completely problem free.

And according to BC Ferries' own 2017 statistics, mechanical breakdowns only cause six per cent of delays, with the vast majority caused by weather, busy traffic, crew drills, medical emergencies and other factors.

Hurry up and wait

The NDP government is awaiting the results of independent review on the future of the ferry service, which may offer some new solutions.

But with few new ferries coming soon, more statements like "the company appreciates your patience and apologizes for disrupting travel plans" can be expected from the busy CEO and his public relations crew.

Line-ups like this one over the long weekend could become more common as the oldest vessel in the BC Ferries fleet are pressed into service for another five to ten years. (Margaret Gallagher/CBC)

About the Author

Mike Laanela is an online journalist with CBC News in Vancouver.

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