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BC Ferries aims for better reliability by cancelling summer refits

Officials planning for all major vessels to be available during year’s 3 busiest months
BC Ferries’ maintenance facility berth. The ferry operator gave an update on vessel refits and repairs on Jan. 31 in Victoria. (Courtesy of BC Ferries)

Public frustration over vessel breakdowns and crew shortages shuttering sailings in 2023 has BC Ferries looking to quell concerns about its reliability.

Ferry officials on Wednesday (Jan. 31) gave a briefing on their plan to have all of the fleet’s major vessels running during the busy season.

The plan includes not scheduling any vessel refits for the upcoming summer, when a record number of passengers is expected. Those regular maintenance refits used to see ferries being worked on into June.

Substantial vessel parts are repaired or replaced during refits, which take four to six weeks. The 20 refits scheduled for 2024 include 15 major vessels.

“Preventative and scheduled maintenance is a core component of delivering reliable, dependable and safe service that British Columbians expect as a critical component of the transportation system,” said Brian Anderson, BC Ferries’ vice president of strategy and planning.

Scheduling no refits for next summer will provide better service, but it will put pressure on maintenance operations that are now compressed into the remaining nine months of the year, said Stephen Jones, VP of engineering.

Wednesday’s briefing came after the Coastal Renaissance – which services major routes between Vancouver Island and the Lower Mainland – broke down unexpectedly last August. The vessel’s return is now slated for March after its repair timeline has been extended multiple times.

Issues affecting the fleet’s three diesel-electric coastal-class ferries pertain to the rotors in their drive motors. The rotors create noise and vibrations that can disrupt neighbours and terminal infrastructure. BC Ferries has responded by shutting off the in-shore propeller when those vessels are docked.

That strategy has cut the 25-year service life of the coastal-class ferries in half because they’re having to start up twice as much. The ferries have 30,000 starts in them when they’re brand new.

Jones said there are no other ways to mitigate the noise and vibration issues, but they’re installing variable speed motor controls in all coastal-class ferries that will prevent rotor failures from reoccurring.

“These have been incredibly reliable vessels for us so we’re very confident (they’ll run this summer),” the engineer said. “The key to getting more resilience into our system is ultimately getting more vessels.”

Stephen Jones, BC Ferries vice president of engineering, gives a briefing on vessel refits and repairs on Jan. 31 in Victoria. (Jake Romphf/News Staff)

BC Ferries’ plans call for replacing legacy vessels with slightly larger ferries that will help incrementally increase passenger capacity, said Anderson.

The fleet currently includes six Queen-class ferries that range from 42 to 59 years old. Anything older than four decades is considered beyond its designed life, which increases the risk of irreparable failure, according to the ferry operator.

They try their best to swap other ships into busy routes when a vessel breaks down, but Anderson said crews may not be certified to work on every vessel and all of their boats don’t fit into every berth. That’s why their long-term plans will push for more standardization as fleets and terminals are upgraded, he added.

But new vessels also bring other challenges as those models have shifted away from being entirely mechanical to having more electronic and digital systems.

“We are going to have to rethink, to some degree, the way that we think about maintenance in order to keep costs under control and ensure we deliver the reliability and safety that our customers need,” Jones said.

Asked if BC Ferries’ 150 skilled workers are trained to work on hybrid and electric models, he said they’re currently providing that training, but it will have to ramp up as fleets evolve.

READ: BC Ferries to face penalties for missed sailings: Province

Jake Romphf

About the Author: Jake Romphf

In early 2021, I made the move from the Great Lakes to Greater Victoria with the aim of experiencing more of the country I report on.
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