Bell Island residents reaching 'boiling point' over spotty ferry service

Many people in the province face a daily commute between work and home. And many accept it as part of their daily routine.

Unreliable ferries leaving people 'feeling isolated and abandoned,' says resident

Katherine Walters has lived on Bell Island for 10 years and says in the last six years, the island's residents have had a one-boat service more often than 'probably ever' before. (Submitted by Katherine Walters)

A resident of Bell Island says the ferry service that travels between the island and Portugal Cove has been unreliable for years and is worse now than ever.

Katherine Walters, who lives in Wabana, said the situation has hit "crisis proportions."

"Islanders are reaching a boiling point," she said.

"The lack of a reasonable response from government is leaving us feeling isolated and abandoned."

The five-kilometre run across the Bell Island Tickle that's usually served by two ferries is now relying on just one, the MV Beaumont Hamel, after the MV Flanders was put in dry dock in St. John's for repairs on its bow thruster.

The MV Legionnaire, which usually runs the route, hasn't been available all summer, and the MV Beaumont Hamel was originally used to replace it.

The reduced capacity makes for lengthy waits in long lineups. Things get worse when the Beaumont Hamel is delayed — on Tuesday, travel stopped for an hour due to a crew injury.

"People will sometimes say, 'I could have lived in Clarenville and driven back and forth to work in less time today,'" Walters said.

Ever since the MV Flanders stopped operating, lineups for the ferry have been exceptionally long. Walters says the wait time can be up to three hours one-way. (Henrike Wilhelm/CBC)

According to Walters, the rest of the province often doesn't understand the frustration.

"I think we've allowed government to define the narrative far too often in our situation and … what ends up happening is oftentimes we come off as whiny and very unsympathetic," she said.

The suggestion to just move to Portugal Cove, said Walters, isn't realistic.

"What am I going to do, abandon the largest asset I have and go rent in someone's basement apartment in Portugal Cove? Come on now," she said.

"I remind people it wasn't that long ago … when Canadians as a whole used to make similar comments about Newfoundland.… You're sort of stuck out there in the Atlantic Ocean and you should be grateful for what you get."

PCs call for improvement

David Brazil, MHA for Conception Bay East-Bell Island and Opposition leader, criticized the situation in a media availability last Thursday.

"The Bell Island run itself has 60 per cent of the travelling public who travel the provincial ferry services, and right now, they have one of the smallest vessels running back and forth in its peak season, its peak employment season," he said.

The situation is unique in the province, Brazil said, as the ferry is a commuter service.

"Four hundred workers travel daily to employment here in the city, in the immediate area. You have hundreds a day having to come to St. John's and area for medical appointments. Plus, you have a vibrant tourism industry that can't access the island," he said.

Brazil calls for improved management and planning.

"They need to immediately put a shore-based manager in place in Portugal Cove-St. Philip's."

Flanders to return, says provincial government

The Department of Transportation and Infrastructure didn't grant CBC an interview, but provided an emailed statement instead.

"We understand the frustrations of ferry users on Bell Island. However, ferries must come out of service every five years for significant mandatory refits and two that were planned for 2020 were postponed to 2021 due to lockdowns associated with COVID-19 pandemic," said the statement.

The Department of Transportation and Infrastructure says the MV Flanders will return in August. (Fred Hutton/CBC)

The department also said it has increased the number of trips per day when the two-vessel schedule is in use, from 16 to 18. The MV Beaumont Hamel takes 15 trips daily.

According to the department, the MV Flanders will return in August.

"Until that time, travellers are encouraged to plan their trips. For example, on this morning's first two trips from Bell Island, when all passengers had boarded, there was available space to carry dozens of more passengers," the statement reads.

In the meantime, Walters has booked an Airbnb in St. John's for a doctor's appointment in August. She said she feels let down by the provincial government.

"If our transportation linkage to the rest of the province means so little to our government, warrants so little planning, seemingly so little concern, so little attention, anyone who lives off the Trans-Canada Highway should be shaking in their boots," she said.

"Yes, it's about Bell Island, but it's about the entire province. I just don't think they realize it yet."

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