Wednesday, December 27, 2006

Will 2007 offer renewal or regrets for BC Ferries

The approaching New Year offers BC Ferries two paths it would seem, one a preferred route by management of renewal and a turning of a rather dark period of time. A hopeful scenario where last years trials, tribulations and tragedies are finally laid to rest and new chapter can begin for the ferry corporation

The other path offers up a year of endless investigations, possible trials and labour strife that could shake the provinces’ most debated transportation option to its very water line and beyond. In fact, some question if the future of the Ferry Corporation itself isn't at risk such are the troubled moments of 2006.

2007 will see the release of the Transportation Safety Boards investigation into the sinking of the Queen of the North, an event that has more than been the face of a year of trouble for the Ferry Corporation. Legal proceedings will no doubt be launched after the investigations are made public, as questions continue to haunt the events of a morning in March in 2006.

It was the year which has seen service reduced to it’s lowest possible level in the North and the trust of the people of the province put to the test time and time again, with each new revelation of the happenings onboard the coastal vessels that take British Columbians to their destinations.

The Canadian Press presented a rather stark recounting of the troubled year for the Corporation with a piece from the Globe and Mail. It’s a harsh reminder that the unfinished business of 2006, is going to cast a very large shadow on the prospects for 2007.

B.C. Ferries faces difficult 2007
Queen of the North inquiry, lawsuits top list of issues
Canadian Press

December 26, 2006

VICTORIA -- Snug in his shipboard cabin aboard the ferry Queen of the North, the wind and rain howling outside his porthole, Graham Clarke was dozing off while trying to read technical documents.

A tremendous bang jolted him wide awake.

The ship had rammed something hard and lurched violently to port, spilling his personal belongings to the floor. The ship struck again, this time a long, grinding blow further aft.
"I did the math. We'd struck rock and we had (floated) into deeper water," he recollects. "I felt we were probably going to sink"

Mr. Clarke was right.

As 2007 dawns, B.C. Ferries faces a series of tough turning points, with the release of the Transportation Safety Board report into what exactly happened that night, a report by a respected auditor into the company's safety practices and the launch of several lawsuits as a result of the sinking.

Shortly after midnight on March 22, the 37-year-old former flagship of the B.C. Ferries fleet was four hours into an overnight passage southbound from Prince Rupert to Port Hardy with 101 passengers and crew.

Instead of making a crucial course change entering Wright Sound, the ship maintained the course it had been steering down a fjord called Grenville Channel.

At nearly full speed it plowed into unmarked, uninhabited Gil Island, about 150 kilometres south of Prince Rupert, and literally tore open the hull like a tin of sardines.

The miracle, according to Mr. Clarke, a shipping executive interested in bidding to take over B.C. Ferries' northern routes, was that the "old Queen" remained afloat for a final hour.

"It wasn't like there was any rush to the lifeboats," he remembers. "There didn't appear to be any immediate threat to life."

This time, Mr. Clarke was wrong.

It was not until later in the day, after the survivors had been welcomed in the isolated native village of Hartley Bay, that heads were counted, and counted again, and again. Officials finally had to conclude that two passengers were missing.

Shirley Rosette and Gerald Foisy, a Prince George couple, had failed to make it to shore.
Wally Bolton of Hartley Bay had been monitoring the search effort on VHF marine radio.

"Our people were feeling like, mourning already, you know, when they knew these people were not found and they did not come into our village," he remembered in a recent interview.
The RCMP consider the pair "missing."

The wreck has raised serious questions about safety and accountability at the former provincial Crown corporation and fuelled a battle with its major union.

The ferry workers' president fears for the future of the company that employs 4,000 of her members.

"I don't know whether B.C. Ferries will survive the sinking of the Queen of the North," says Jackie Miller.

The union has long had bitter relations with whichever body runs the ferry system, but Ms. Miller said the relationship has deteriorated even further since the sinking.

David Hahn, president and CEO of B.C. Ferries, acknowledges the way ahead will be rough, but he dismisses Ms. Miller's dire concerns about the future of the company.

"We have to get through what are going to be some tough months ahead with all these reports," he said.

But he noted surveys conducted in August and November show strong customer satisfaction, including in the area of safety.

Mr. Hahn took the helm in 2003 of a restructured Crown corporation paralyzed by debt and the victim of a fast-ferry fiasco that cost taxpayers nearly a half-billion dollars under the former NDP government. B.C. Ferries is now a quasi-private company enshrined in legislation.

With 35 vessels and 186,000 sailings carrying more than 20 million passengers and eight million vehicles annually, B.C. Ferries is one of the world's largest and busiest publicly owned ferry systems.

The aim of the Coastal Ferry Act was to allow B.C. Ferries to control its own financial and operating decisions, independent of government interference.

The province retains ownership of the assets under a new and unique ferry authority, while B.C. Ferry Services Inc. was set up as a private operating company. The two share a board of directors.

The province pays an annual $107-million fee in exchange for certain levels of service on less profitable routes. A new ferry commission regulates fares and service levels.

But the new company was removed from provincial freedom of information legislation, prompting concerns from the province's information and privacy watchdog who said he worried about the lack of transparency around safety and accountability to the public.

Those concerns are shared by the NDP, the B.C Federation of Labour and the B.C. Ferry and Marine Workers Union.

B.C. Transportation Minister Kevin Falcon said B.C. Ferries has "one of the best safety records in the world for an organization and a fleet of its size."

Captain Darrin Bowland disagrees.

Capt. Bowland, the fleet's former safety officer, resigned days after the sinking and filed a wrongful-dismissal suit in June claiming B.C. Ferries had ignored his warnings about the potential for "catastrophic incidents" if safety wasn't improved.

He later dropped the suit, saying he didn't have enough money to continue the court battle.
Other lawsuits have also been filed in the wake of the wreck, the first by a couple who were moving to Vancouver Island. Unwilling to entrust their most precious possessions to movers, they had packed the family car to the brim.

They lost everything.

Another court action, by B.C.'s Public Guardian and Trustee on behalf of Shirley Rosette's two orphaned sons, is seeking co-operation from the RCMP so their mother can legally be presumed dead.

Court documents reveal one son is a minor, the other has been injured in a car accident and can't work. They lost their natural father in a drowning accident in 2003.

But they need the RCMP to close its missing-persons file in order to claim survivor benefits and initiate legal proceedings for damages.

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