On the North Coast and Central Coasts, the marine highway is a lifeline for many people, and for tourists it offers access to the Great Bear Rainforest and Haida Gwaii.
BC Ferries’ president and CEO, Mark Collins travelled to Prince Rupert on Jan. 29, to speak to the business community about where his company is heading, and to listen to feedback.
On Wednesday, Jan. 30, members of the Prince Rupert and District Chamber of Commerce were invited aboard the Northern Expedition, where Collins will share his company’s new corporate message — enabling communities to be connected with one another. He will also share plans for a low-carbon future, replacing old vessels and adding new routes with the Northern Sea Wolf expected to start sailing this June.
With space for 150 passengers and 35 vehicles, the Northern Sea Wolf will open more access to the Central Coast. The ferry will take passengers from Bella Coola to Bella Bella and back once a week in the winter and summer seasons. There will be two round trips to Port Hardy twice a week in the summer and not at all in the winter.
“They (the Cariboo Chilcotin Coast Tourism Association) really felt the connection from Northern Vancouver Island into Bella Coola was critical for the whole tourism activity right into the Cariboo,” Collins said.
While the Bella Coola region can anticipate more services, what can Prince Rupert and Haida Gwaii residents expect in the coming months, or years?
Last June, BC Ferries converted two vessels from marine diesel fuel to liquefied natural gas (LNG), becoming the first passenger ferry system in North America to do so.
“We are the first ships anywhere in the world, of any type, to fuel natural gas on the deck of a ship … and we were the first ever to fuel on an enclosed car deck,” Collins said.
To accomplish this engineering feat, BC Ferries invested in five years of research and risk assessments, but Collins said it’s paid off, as they have forgone approximately $150-million in infrastructure to avoid special LNG fueling piers or tanks by fuelling right on the ferry.
“It makes investing in natural gas propulsion really cost effective,” he said.
Both the Northern Adventure, build in 2004, and the Northern Expedition, built in 2009, are considered younger vessels for BC Ferries’ current fleet of 36 vessels, and it’s unlikely they will be converted to LNG any time soon.
“It’s most cost effective to build it into a new ship, and both of the ships operating up here are relatively young,” Collins said.
The two northern ships burn so much fuel on their travels that he said there could be a business case for going with natural gas, which is about half the price of diesel. But it’s unlikely BC Ferries will consider the retrofit any time soon, as both vessels are modern and burn cleaner low-sulphur diesel.
When asked about some of the mechanical failures the Northern Expedition had with its engine last August and September, Collins apologized for the disruption to passengers, but he said this event is unlikely to happen again.
“We take our northern ships into refit every year, which is not usual in our fleet, normally it’s every two-and-a-half, three years,” he said.
“No amount of maintenance is a guarantee it won’t break, but I feel confident the Expedition is going to work very well.”
Something that is coming this spring to BC Ferries is a new website. Collins said it’s going to have smoother booking flows, discount pricing on off-peak sales for the main routes in the south.
No, resident fares are not coming to Prince Rupert any time soon. Residents from Haida Gwaii and along the Central Coast routes, such as Bella Bella pay off-peak rates all year long.
A 15 per cent discounted fare was introduced to northern routes starting April 2018 as part of a two-year plan with the provincial government and BC Ferries. By the second quarter, BC Ferries reported that its net earnings were down due to lowering fares across 21 routes and adding more sailings to meet customer demand.
“There’s not doubt it’s had an impact on revenue. We cannot sustain that forever because it’s a big ferry system and it needs revenue to operate, and we’re continuing to invest in the ferry service,” Collins said, adding that it has a limit.
Shannon Lough | Editor
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