BC Ferries vessel Skeena Queen pulls into the dock at Fulford Harbour on Salt Spring Island. (Black Press File Photo).

BC Ferries vessel Skeena Queen pulls into the dock at Fulford Harbour on Salt Spring Island. (Black Press File Photo).

BC Ferries faces calls for improved reliability on Swartz Bay-Fulford Harbour route

Recent mechanical breakdown resulted in sailing cancellations

The cancellation of ferry service between Fulford Harbour and Swartz Bay last week has raised questions about the reliability of that service.

Stephen Roberts, who lives on Salt Spring Island and campaigned for the BC Liberals during the last provincial election, described the cancellation of ferry service on Oct. 21 as a “debacle.” For him, it personally meant a four-hour-long detour to reach Sidney that day by way of the Vesuvius Bay-Crofton route following a one-sailing wait, then a trip over the Malahat.

BC Ferries cancelled all sailings on the route because the Skeena Queen suffered a mechanical breakdown. “We experienced mechanical problems with two of the four generators on the Skeena Queen last Wednesday,” said Astrid Chang, manager of communication for BC Ferries. “We are required to have three of four generators in proper working order to sail.”

RELATED: BC Ferries cancels additional sailings to Salt Spring Island

RELATED: Mechanical failure leaves nearly 200 passengers stranded on BC Ferries ship for hours

BC Ferries responded by offering a 15-passenger water taxi service while alerting travellers to the VesuviusBay-Crofton route. The Skeena Queen can carry up to 450 passengers and crew, as well as 92 vehicles. BC Ferries also pressed the Bowen Queen into service for a midday round trip between Fulford Harbour and Swartz Bay.

The Skeena Queen returned to service the next day after crews installed a spare generator imported from the fleet’s maintenance unit in Richmond, said Chang. Built in 1997, the Skeena Queen had returned to service in March 2020 after undergoing a mid-life upgrade for required maintenance and enhanced customer experience.

While Roberts acknowledged that ferries break down, he said BC Ferries needs to do more to improve service as some Salt Spring residents use the route daily and the route is also an important route for commercial traffic and tourism.

Adam Olsen, the returning MLA for Saanich North and the Islands, acknowledged that ferries break down, adding it is a fact of life for Island residents.

“But on the other (hand), it is a responsibility of the Ministry of Transportation to ensure that are alternatives there,” said Olsen. “This is a very disruptive thing to happen.”

The cancellations happened just two days after BC Greens had called for converting BC Ferries back into a Crown corporation. BC Greens leader Sonia Furstenau had argued that the corporation’s current profit motive has undermined and eroded service reliability. She also pleaded for more passenger-only ferry service as part of a multi-modal, more environmentally-friendly service.

“I’m never going to say that a Crown corporation is going to be able to make sure that there are zero mechanical failures,” said Olsen. “But I will say that the governance structure is something that will absolutely need to be look at.”

Looking at available statistics, the annual report for 2020 (ending March 31) shows two cancellations of required round trips, one for weather, the other for mechanical failure. That figure gives the route a better rating than the entire service, 0.07 per cent compared to 0.44 per cent of required round trips cancelled.

According to BC Ferries, the route had seen a total of 662,431 passengers and 329,683 vehicles by March 2020, the end of the last fiscal year, with both figures down — 1.14 per cent for vehicles, 3.17 per cent for passengers compared to March 2019.

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