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Ferry Goes Down, Quality of Service Rises

So says BC Ferries' new report. But not its customers.

Heather Ramsay 24 Nov 2006TheTyee.ca

Heather Ramsay is a Tyee contributing editor based in Queen Charlotte City. Find her previous stories here.

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Latest victim: Queen of Prince Rupert

Never has B.C. Ferries provided better service on the north coast than in the months after the Queen of the North sank.

At least that's what the company is telling itself. Which has a lot of ferry users scratching their heads.

Covering the period from April to June 30, 2006, a quality of service report prepared by the corporation for the B.C. Ferry Commission reads like a pat on the back for good ferry service provided.

But among residents on the northern route, the memories of being stranded last spring are still fresh.

Adding to the frustration is the fact that for more than the past week the Queen of Prince Rupert, which provides the only car and passenger transportation link between the mainland and the Queen Charlotte Islands, has been out of service again. The surprise stoppage dashed the hopes of everyone from the high school girls' volleyball team to those with long awaited medical specialist appointments in Terrace.

Stranded for a month

According to B.C. Ferries' cheerful report, the corporation provided 180 per cent of the scheduled round trips during those early days last spring. Between Skidegate and Prince Rupert, 77 return trips were made, and the corporation had only been required to provide 43.

How is this possible? After the biggest ship in the northern fleet sank 400 metres below the surface of the Inside Passage near Hartley Bay on March 22, the ferry corporation was left with one aging vessel to cover the routes between Skidegate and Prince Rupert and Prince Rupert and Port Hardy. But that ship, the Queen of Prince Rupert, was in dry dock for its annual repairs and wouldn't be ready until the end of April.

For a month last spring, Queen Charlotte Islanders and others were stranded on either side of Hecate Strait, unable to get vehicles back on or off the misty isles.

B.C. Ferry Commissioner Martin Crilly, to whom the report is addressed, agrees the report doesn't make sense unless the reader knows what went on behind the scenes and even he has had to go back to B.C. Ferries for clarification.

The report notes the number of round trips was up thanks to a "supplemental charter vessel." Soon after the Queen of the North sank, B.C. Ferries provided a regular tug and barge service for commercial freight to the islands, as well as flights chartered between the islands and Prince Rupert for passengers.

Thanks for flying BC Ferries

This too sounds great, but, of course, there was a hitch. Flights were only made available to people who had made reservations prior to the ferry sinking and later, after lobbying by locals, for those with medical appointments on the mainland. But for many islanders this added service was no help.

"The reports are set up for the normal service pattern," says Crilly. "But flying people to Prince Rupert is not exactly the same thing as taking a ship."

John Farrell, who works on the islands, but who has a wife, child and business in Prince Rupert, knows that. He is a regular customer on the marine highway, commuting between Queen Charlotte and the mainland by parking his car in Skidegate, walking on the ferry and walking off on the other side. Last spring, he was not in the habit of making reservations for travel. Most locals didn't, knowing there was always space for passengers and often space for vehicles at the last minute.

Farrell was forced to pay for his own flights back and forth across the Strait until he realized others had been flying. It took some lobbying, but with records of his weekly use of the ferry, he eventually convinced B.C. Ferries to allow him to use the charter service.

Now, eight months later, he always makes reservations, but this time he was out of luck.

Now no ferry, no flights

In mid-October, a crab trap got wound up in one of the Queen of Prince Rupert's two props, and broke the seal on one of the stern tubes. The leaking seal was not a safety problem, says B.C. Ferries spokesperson Mark Stefanson, but they wanted to get it fixed as soon as possible.

The last trip the QPR made off the islands left Thursday, Nov. 16 and the ferry went to dry dock in Ketchikan, Alaska. It is not expected back until this Sunday, Nov. 26. Even though Farrell had reservations for those two weekends, this time B.C. Ferries decided not to provide flights for islanders, stranding him again.

Lee-al Nelson, the volleyball coach in Queen Charlotte, is fuming. He booked return ferry passage for himself and 23 girls on the junior and senior teams a month in advance of the date they were all heading to the regional zone playoffs. Two days before he and the teenage girls were set to go, BC Ferries informed him that the group could leave the islands, but their scheduled return trip had been cancelled.

"They should have given us more notice," he says, outraged.

He scrambled to find a way for his senior girls, who had a chance at the championships, to go. No thanks to B.C. Ferries, he raised $1,400 in return plane fare for the volleyball players from the school board and other sources, but the juniors, who were thrilled at their first chance to play in the zones, were left high and dry.

When he demanded compensation, his pleas fell on deaf ears.

"They told me it was something they couldn't control," he says.

Sorry, private corporation

It was bad enough when B.C. Ferries gave him the cold shoulder, but then Nelson called the Ministry of Transportation. "They said they couldn't get involved, that B.C. Ferries was a private corporation now."

But Nelson doesn't agree. "That's our highway," he says. Providing a route off the islands is part of the ministry's portfolio, he says.

Why would B.C. Ferries leave it until the last minute to tell them the ferry would be out of service?

Kerry Laidlaw, administrator of the Queen Charlotte Islands Hospital, says 27 people had medical appointments on the mainland that they could not get to thanks to the disruption in service. He has no idea how many patients were stranded on the other side because they couldn't return before the ferry went out of service.

Laidlaw says some people will have to wait another six months for an appointment, and others, if they are able, are forced to pay around $300 for airfare, as opposed to the ferry fare, which is free for medical travellers.

The ferry is allowed to miss 20 consecutive days of service and still receive its $40,000 subsidy per sailing. The company was given permission to miss more sailings when the unusual circumstance of the sinking took place. The missed sailings this month are not in contravention of the company's contract, says Crilly.

'Not going to let it rest'

Nelson says islanders are getting shafted. People in the lower mainland or southern Vancouver Island would never put up with such a lack of service. Not to mention the lack of support he's getting for young athletes, girls who could be future Olympians, in a province leading up to 2010.

He thinks it is ridiculous there is no backup boat in the first place, and he doesn't understand why B.C. Ferries would not provide the same level of service they did after the Queen of the North sank. Nor does he think it ethical that the ferries kept taking reservations even though they knew there was a problem that would have to be fixed.

"I'm not going to let it rest. I'm going to push it," he says, having already talked with CBC radio and television news.

But even though the B.C. Ferry Commission is tasked with monitoring the quality of service B.C. Ferries provides, it is not a general complaints bureau, nor does the commissioner act as an ombudsman.

"It's not my job to police the day-to-day performance of B.C. Ferries," says Crilly. He says the commission gathers data a reports in order to look for longer-term trends, things that might indicate the regulators are squeezing the corporation too hard, or that service reliability is deteriorating. "But it does seem like this is not the best way to treat customers," he says.

Farrell agrees. "They responded well to the crisis, but as soon as the heat is off, they go back to screwing us."

Sinking improved punctuality

Farrell is furious that the company knew for a week that they would take the boat out of service. He says they should have made arrangements for those who use the route like a highway.

"Good companies remember who their clients are and remember the roots of their business," he says.

Meanwhile B.C. Ferries has provided one more unlikely, upbeat tidbit in their report likely to further confuse islanders. The sinking seems to have improved punctuality on the northern sailings.

B.C. Ferries is required to report to the commission on how often the ferries sail within 10 minutes of their scheduled departure. The northern routes don't often do well in this regard. In April, May and June of 2004 when running between Skidegate and Prince Rupert, the ferry left on schedule less than 30 per cent of the time. During the same months of 2005, the ferry set sail within 10 minutes of its scheduled departure less than 40 per cent of the time.

Just about any user of the ferry can attest to the waits. People have got on the ferry, cuddled into their cabins and woke up in the morning, only to find themselves in the same harbour where they boarded. These extreme cases have more to do with inclement weather than lack of service, but long waits before departure are the norm on northern routes.

Lucky for B.C. Ferries, they can show -- after the Queen of the North sank -- a surprising leap. All of a sudden the sailings were on-time 90 per cent of the time.

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