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Ferry Workers Told to Stop Calling New Vessels 'Gas Guzzlers'

Memo shows 'culture of secrecy' says NDP critic.

Andrew MacLeod 15 Jan 2009TheTyee.ca

Andrew MacLeod is The Tyee's Legislative Bureau Chief in Victoria. You can reach him here.

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German-built Coastal Renaissance.

At a time when ferry schedules were being cut, B.C. Ferries management wanted front line staff to stop telling customers the new German-built vessels are "gas guzzlers."

"As you are aware we have put into place a number of initiatives to reduce some of the fixed costs such as fuel in order to compensate for the 11% loss of traffic," wrote Barbara Britton-Wilson, the director of catering services for B.C. Ferries, in an Oct. 6 e-mail to the catering departments on 16 ships.

"Employees making anecdotal comments about the Coastal Class being 'gas guzzlers' and giving the customer the impression this is the reason they are tied up does not instill confidence," she wrote.

B.C. Ferries president and CEO David Hahn and vice-president and COO Mike Corrigan had recently issued memos saying sailings were going to be cut, she wrote, and the reasons would be given through the media, Internet and company brochures.

The measures Hahn had announced on Oct. 1 included using the new Coastal Renaissance, one of three ferries recently built in Germany at a total project cost of $542 million, only three days a week.

No 'off the cuff' remarks

In her e-mail, Britton-Wilson acknowledged that the Renaissance and the two other new Coastal Class ships burn more fuel than do older B.C. Ferries vessels, but stressed that passengers shouldn't hear about that.

"We need to impress upon our staff and our customers that the decision to reduce sailings makes good economic sense at this time," she wrote. Managers should explain the business rationale to the staff, she said and "ensure staff are well informed and are not making off the cuff remarks."

A call to B.C. Ferries' media line was not returned by publication time.

"This memo shows that there is a culture of secrecy at B.C. Ferries," said NDP ferry critic and North Coast MLA Gary Coons. "They don't want any of their employees to tell the truth to the public."

The provincial government still owns B.C. Ferries, which it restructured from a Crown corporation to a private company in 2003, and budgeted $148 million for ferry services this year. In October, Premier Gordon Campbell announced a further $20 million to reduce B.C. Ferries fares by 33 per cent for two months.

Public has right to know: critic

The privatization made it much harder to find out what's happening with the ferry system, said Coons. "B.C. Ferries isn't going to give us answers to the mounting questions about management, and about possible design flaws and gas consumption," he said. "This government is arrogantly hiding behind an excuse that they can't get involved, but when they got involved with holiday fares, they proved themselves wrong."

The Tyee reported in November that B.C. Ferries fuel-use charts show that on some routes the new vessels used as much on average as 52 per cent more fuel than older vessels. We later noted the company planned to save fuel by having captains and crews learn to drive the ships better, following more direct routes, and changing light bulbs.

The new ferries have had various problems since arriving in B.C., the most serious of which include high fuel consumption, heavy vibrations and noise while docked at the terminals. The problems may all be linked to a design flaw that has their propellers sitting too high in the water.

Said Coons, "British Columbians deserve to know why it is the new ferries seem to be plagued with problems."

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