Wednesday, March 20, 2019

Ferry News, good and bad - Part 1: NS / PEI

Finally there was a glimmer of good news for Canada's beleaguered ferry systems in yesterday's federal budget. Supposing you had been able to hear the finance minster's presentation in the House of Commons, (it was drowned out by opposition memebers pounding their desks) you would have heard that a new ferry has been promised for the Northumberland Strait. The ferry service between Caribou, NS and Wood Islands, Prince Edward Island has been struggling in recent years with aging and inefficient craft. Both the existing ferries, Confederation and Holiday Island are owned by the federal government's Minister of Transport and operated by Northumberland Ferries Ltd, a Prince Edward Island based company.

Holiday Island built in 1971 for the Cape Tormentine, NB / Borden PE service, it was transferred to the second crossing after the opening of the Confederation Bridge in 1997, and it is the one to be replaced. 

Holiday Island is a double deck, doublend ship of fairly simple design. 

Now the not so great news. Holiday Island is to be replaced, the budget promises, with a newly built ship, but no timeline and no dollar figure was given. This means, in my mind, that if a new government comes in after the Autumn 2019 election, the process could be re-started or canceled altogether.

In view of the string of bad luck with foreign built ferries recently (see Newfoundland and Quebec in Part 2 and 3 of these posts) it is very likely that the boat will be built in Canada. The Davie shipyard in Quebec will no doubt be first in line to want that contract. Davie has now completed two new dual fuel diesel / LNG ferries that are not too different from what would be needed on the Caribou / Wood Islands run, so Davie can make a good case for itself.

As part of the budget, the current Federal subsidy to the service has been renewed until 2022. That might be long enough to get the new ferry into the construction stage, but also leaves room to open up competition for a ferry operator.

It is well known that the Woodward Group of Newfoundland would like to take on the service, and in fact it is believed they have access to a ferry that could be in service as early as this summer if wanted. Woodward has two ferries of similar design to Confederation, but ice class, in its fleet now. The first, Qajak W., has been operating between St.Barbe and Blanc Sablon this winter. Although hampered by unusually heavy ice this year, it seems to be doing well. As a used vessel acquired from Europe, it has had any bugs ironed out long ago. The advantage of a Woodward contract is that with three similar ferries in the fleet, they could rotate them out for maintenance. Particularly with the Northumberland service closed for the winter, the boat assigned to that run could operate elsewhere from December to May where its ice class rating would be of use.

However in order to extract the maximum political benefit out of the deal, the government is unlikely to go with the Woodward option.

Here's the scenario:
1. Promise the ferry now and get re-elected in October. Maybe deliver it later.
2. Build a new ferry in Canada, maybe in Quebec = votes in Quebec.
3. Renew contract with PEI company = votes in PEI.

Please remain in your seats. After a brief intermission, Part 2 of this episode will begin.


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