BC Ferries hedging to two-vessel option for Gabriola route

Derek Kilbourn

Sounder News

Tuesday, July 31 2018

BC Ferries news cycled fast this past week.

On Monday, July 23, the ferry corporation hosted an information session as part of its consultation with the community on whether the 70-vehicle Quinsam would be better replaced by a single vessel (roughly 100-car capacity) running on the same schedule as the Quinsam, or to run two smaller 50-vehicle ferries. 

Following the meeting, Darin Guenette, BC Ferries Manager of Public Affairs, said that the company was still digesting the discussion from the meeting as well as waiting for the results of the survey before making any further decisions.

He added that, in general, responses have indicated a preference towards the two-ship option (roughly 75 per cent as opposed to 25 per cent for the one-ship option) for a variety of reasons.

The public survey closed on Thursday. That same day, BC Ferries sent out a news release stating that it would be issuing Requests for Expressions of Interest (RFEOI) for the procurement of five new vessels to replace aging fleet assets. The competitive bidding process is open to local, national and international shipyards, including consortiums, and BC Ferries encourages local and national companies to bid on these projects.

The first RFEOI is for the procurement process for the construction of four 81-metre Island Class ferries, each with a capacity of 450 passengers and 47 vehicles. The expected delivery date for the first two of these vessels is in 2020, with the following two ships to be delivered in 2021. The second RFEOI is for the construction of one 107-metre Salish Class vessel with a capacity of 600 passengers and 138 vehicles. The expected delivery date for this vessel is in 2021.

Of the five new ships, two are proposed to be assigned to the Gabriola-Nanaimo route. On top of this, it would allow BC Ferries to replace the Bowen Queen, Mayne Queen and Powell River Queen, and would see two ships replace the one ship currently serving the Campbell River-Quadra Island route. This will more than double both the Gabriola and Quadra passenger carrying capacity, with 400 to 900 passengers per hour, while the vehicle carrying capacity will increase by approximately 60 to 94 vehicles per hour. 

BC Ferries says the more frequent ferry service reduces lineups, improves safety, provides more convenience to travellers and also eliminates the need to increase the size of the terminal’s holding compounds.

BC Ferries holds the design rights to both the Island and Salish classes of vessels and will specify that the new vessels are to be built identically to ensure interoperability. The designs will be provided to winning shipyards - not all the ships will have to be built at the same shipyard - the contracts being requested are just to build the already approved designs.

In communicating with the Gabriola Ferry Advisory Committee, Guenette explained that even with the RFEOI being sent out, the ship replacements would still require approval from the BC Ferries Board and the Ferry Commissioner. That means the plans could, in theory, be denied by the Board or Commissioner.

However, both the Commissioner and the Board have been kept informed as BC Ferries has proceeded with the proposals and have not, as Guenette explained, expressed any reason they would deny the proposal.

Mark Wilson, BC Ferries’ Vice President of Strategy and Community Engagement, said, “These new vessels will help us move toward our ambition to be leaders in the transition to a lower carbon future, and our standardization and interoperability of the fleet. This improves safety, environmental performance and resiliency, and reduces costs.

“The Island Class ships will be electric hybrid propulsion, including batteries, and the Salish Class will be fuelled with natural gas. These new clean-tech vessels will reduce our carbon emissions, helping the Province achieve its greenhouse gas reduction targets, and have the added benefit of reducing the amount of underwater radiated noise we produce.”

Steve Earle, Chair of the Gabriola Ferry Advisory Commission, said the two-vessel option seems to make the most sense for the Gabriola route.

 “To me it offers greater flexibility, if there’s a ferry every 35 to 40 minutes. That leads to shorter lineups, and room for expansion if they find they have to run both for the whole day, that can be done.”

Earle said having one of the vessels berthed overnight in Nanaimo may also help with BC Ferries’ issue of finding crew to serve on the Gabriola route.

“I know they struggle to have crew based on Gabriola.”

Up until this past spring, BC Ferries had been projecting that a replacement for the Quinsam was not possible until 2028 or 2029.

With this new timeline, the two Island Class vessels could be serving the route by 2022, almost six years before the single-vessel replacement projection.

The first two Island Class ferries are scheduled to go into service for the Texada and Alert Bay routes in 2020. Guenette was asked if one of the ferries currently serving those routes could be put into service on the Gabriola route in tandem with the Quinsam.

He said, “No, the Texada and Port McNeil route vessels cannot be deployed to Gabriola, as they are either being retired (end of life) or redeployed elsewhere to replace a vessel that is retiring. The end result is that when the two new Island Class vessels come into service, two other vessels will be retired...so there will be no new ‘surplus vessels’ at that time.”