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20 BC Ferries vessels scheduled for refit this year, says engineering vice-president

About 20 of BC Ferries’ vessels will undergo a refit in 2024, with the company having modified its approach to compress the amount of time that takes, its vice-president of engineering said Wednesday.

In the maintenance and repair update, Stephen Jones said that compression will add put more pressure on its system, but ultimately give it a “bit more of a lead into summer.”

“Another major factor is having a relief vessel available to ensure we can continue to provide service while we’re working on the vessel that’s out of service,” he explained.

“The costs widely vary based on the size of the ship, but an average of about close to $5 million per refit.”

BC Ferries has $900 million in capital expenditures planned for the next 12 years, Jones said, including modifications to the Spirit vessels that allow them to run on diesel fuel and liquified natural gas, as well as enlarged shopping areas on passenger decks, new coffee shops, and new toilets.

Earlier this month, BC Ferries awarded a contract to build four new hybrid-electric vessels to be ready to sail by 2027. Last year, that cost was estimated to be over $50 million, while associated electrification of ferry terminals would add another $40 million.

With regard to a major vessel that’s been drydocked since last August — the Coastal Renaissance — Jones said repairs are “on schedule.” However, its date for returning to the water after a motor failure has already been delayed three times.

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“We expect to see that vessel back in service in March,” Jones said. “The Coastals have been a reliable workhorse for us and we look forward to having them all back in service this summer.”

The update comes after a year of turbulence in customer service. Thousands of bookings were cancelled and reassigned after the Coastal Renaissance was first drydocked.

The issues with that vessel came less than two months after the Coastal Celebration was drydocked for repairs for the 2023 Canada Day long weekend, resulting in more than 6,600 reassigned bookings and eight fewer daily sailings for six days. Sailings were cancelled again when the Coastal Celebration returned to the water afterward, but further mechanical issues were identified.

That same month, BC Ferries’ website showed an erroneous nine-sailing wait time and 12-hour delay, causing public confusion.

The company has also struggled with staffing shortages, which were responsible for roughly four in 10 cancellations in 2022, according to a BC Ferries report. That same year, however, an estimated 8.5 out of 10 sailings departed on time, according to B.C. Ferries and Marine Workers’ Union president Eric McNeely.

Last year, the B.C. government announced it would start fining the company next this April for sailings cancelled due to crew shortages. BC Ferries went on a hiring spree in 2023, bringing in some 1,200 new employees, four new vice-presidents and three new operating divisions.

Brian Anderson, BC Ferries vice-president of strategy and operations, provided an update on the company’s maintenance “philosophy” Wednesday. He described the scheduling of repairs and maintenance as a “complicated ballet” that takes place outside of peak season as much as possible.

Between Thanksgiving and the May long weekend, Anderson said between three to four ships are under out for repairs each month.

“Our schedules also have to work around a couple of ongoing considerations. Not all of our crews are trained on all the vessels. Transport Canada has unique requirements not only by the ship, but where that ship is explaining,” he explained. “We also have vessels that don’t fit into every berth.”

BC Ferries is private company that receives millions of dollars in provincial funding each year. It serves roughly 20 million passengers annually with 39 vessels in active use.

Transportation Minister Rob Fleming has acknowledged the service issues, and last summer, said a “complete overhaul” of the system “can’t come soon enough.”

Jones said the key to boosting resiliency and capacity in the system is adding more vessels, but didn’t provide an “ideal” number of vessels when asked.

Jones is one of four new vice-presidents hired in 2023 to lead one of three new operating divisions: engineer, marine operations and customer experience. The company has also bolstered its communications department.

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