Costs overboard: What you're paying for with emergency ferry fixes
The province's 2 newest vessels have been plagued by breakdowns
The MV Veteran and the MV Legionnaire were supposed to be the stars of the province's ferry fleet when they were built in Romania in 2015. Instead, the vessels have been plagued by broken parts and human mistakes.
And, for the last year and a half, taxpayers have been footing the bill.
Between 2015 and the fall of 2017, breakdowns were covered by Damen, the company that built the ships, after the province negotiated an extended warranty.
Early issues with the Veteran included a breakdown on the way from Europe to Newfoundland before it made its first run to Fogo Island.
Since then, it's been out of service dozens of times with everything from ramp malfunctions to thruster problems. Even the bathrooms have been closed for maintenance.
The Legionnaire has had problems as well, but not as often. In the early days, when the Veteran broke down, Damen would do the same fix on the Legionnaire to head off similar issues.
The extended warranty ran out in the fall of 2017, and from then on, either the province or its insurance had to pay the bills.
"These are very large vessels. If you look at the Bell Island run, the very short distance across there — these vessels, people have told me, in some cases are oversized for the type of operations they're running," said Transportation Minister Steve Crocker as to why the ferries have so many problems.
"Just mechanically, if you look at the Bell Island run, the vessel is in and out of gear a lot. It's harder on a vessel, or any vehicle when it's not getting long runs."
Crocker said he's been told the short trips and frequent use cause added wear and tear.
"We're putting the ramps down on these vessels more often than many vessels of that size would actually have the ramps going up and down. We're using thrusters more because of positioning and jockeying into wharfs and stuff. So that all has a wear and tear factor."
Since the province took over the costs of repairs, the bills have been piling up.
For regular maintenance on the Veteran, the province paid $481,099.
Emergency repairs when parts broke or failed cost $2,301,263.
The Legionnaire cost $176,000 for routine maintenance. Emergency repairs came to just $78,000.
Those numbers include thousands in docking fees at the shipyard, but not the additional cost of air service hired to accommodate passengers when the vessels are out of service.
Eugene Nippard, who until recently was the citizen's representative on the Fogo Island transportation committee, said human error is a factor in the frequency of the ferries' mechanical troubles.
"It appears that some of it might have been abuse," he said. "The crew, inexperience. Because that's a high-tech ferry. We might have mechanical issues with the ferry from the factory where it was built, but we had a lot of issues where it appeared that it was self-inflicted."
Nippard said he's been sitting in his seat on the Veteran while it's tied up at the wharf and vibrating so intensely he feels like he's falling out of the chair, which shouldn't happen while the vessel is idling.
Crocker acknowledged there have been some challenges.
"And we've had some things on the vessel that weren't designed in a way to mitigate human error," he said.
"We've had to, in some cases, make changes with alarms and alerts for different things on vessels that were, I wouldn't necessarily even call it engineering oversight, but things that could have been done with added caution."
He gave an example of two filters with interchangeable parts located next to each other. An employee mistakenly added fuel to the wrong filter and wrecked the engine on the Veteran.
Crocker said it should have been impossible to do that because the filters should have had different parts that couldn't be used incorrectly.
Extra repairs affecting department's work
"We do have money budgeted every year for this kind of situation," Crocker said. "But it becomes difficult on the department, and lots of times we have to go and find it in something that we're planning to do that we're probably going to have to delay to get these repairs done."
He said there are times the department has to reschedule refits on other vessels, so the repair work can come out of the refit budget.
"We go into that budget and find ways to actually put it into this vessel or that vessel."
With an aging fleet of ferries, sometimes repair work can't be delayed for safety reasons. Transport Canada requires a certain level of seaworthiness, and those refits have to be done on time.
That means unexpected repairs may have to wait, which can extend the time the big ferries are out of service. It also affects the province's insurance, which covers large expenses like the blown engine.
Crocker said he hopes the number of unexpected repairs drops as problems are discovered and fixed, and the crew becomes more familiar with the vessels' quirks. In the meantime, he said, he's waiting for the results of an investigation into the ferries' histories.
"Last year, the public accounts committee asked the auditor general to look into the purchase of these vessels and the challenges we've been having with them," he said. "So we're looking forward to seeing what the auditor general's review comes back with."
That won't mean the province gets its money back, but he said it could help find the root of the problems and prevent some of these expenses from piling up.