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Ferry, ferry quite contrary

SYDNEY, N.S. - "Welcome to the Friendly Commercial Reservation System. You have six options: To give us free advice on how you'd run our ferry service, press one. To tell us where to go, press two. To...


SYDNEY, N.S. –“Welcome to the Friendly Commercial Reservation System. You have six options: To give us free advice on how you’d run our ferry service, press one. To tell us where to go, press two. To make a commercial reservation, press three. If you’ve double booked, press four. If your shipper made you wait all night and you wish to pay your late fine, press five. If you spot a ferry leaving the wharf half empty, press six.”

Marine Atlantic, 50% of the commercial lifeline between the mainland and Newfoundland, replaced its first-come, first-on-the- boat policy with a commercial reservation system on March 15.

It thought the human touch of a call-in service would grease the skids, even though the Atlantic Provinces Trucking Association (APTA) wanted Marine Atlantic to have its Internet reservation system running from day one, according to APTA executive director Jean-Marc Picard.

Carriers swamped the boat.

“We wanted (a call-in service) to help carriers who had never used this process. But we didn’t contemplate the amount of calls people would make on the merits of commercial reservations: 10 minutes going off on a tangent and then booking. The length of time on the phone was far beyond what we anticipated,” explains Jim Roche, project manager, customer experience, Marine Atlantic.

It was a zoo trying to get through to book 100 spots or sometimes even one, cancel reservations because something or someone made a truck late, find out if any slots had opened up, get a last-minute booking to take advantage of a last-minute deal, etc.

Carriers complained that they lost valuable contracts for the want of a ride across the Gulf. Small guys hatched conspiracy theories about big guys hogging all the slots, then at the last minute dumping the ones they didn’t need.

“It might have been perceived that way, but I wouldn’t go that far. At first the procedures and booking amounts were unknown. I think a lot of people played their wild cards right away,” Picard says.

Wild cards? Based on every carrier’s history of ferry use back to 2005, Marine Atlantic assigned a maximum number of reservations each would be permitted to make each month.

“In the beginning, we did not want to restrict carriers from growing their business,” Roche says.

There were lots of “just in case” bookings. “Marine Atlantic talked to all of us about this,” says Eddie Hillman, owner, Hillman’s Transfer Limited, Sydney, N.S.

Gordon Peddle, past APTA chair and CEO and co-owner of Atlantica Diversified Transportation Systems (his company, D.D. Transport merged with Rexton, New Brunswick-based Warren Transport this spring) thinks some overbooking was to be expected, but it was not malicious.

“I sit with most of the larger carriers. I don’t think they are trying to block the boat. They are trying to understand their own volume. There was an element of scare (at first) because we didn’t know how much we would get.”

Roche consults the records: “Carriers large, medium and small were booking more than they were using. In the first two weeks we had 64 cancellations a day. But the daily average for the last 10-day period (ending May 26) was 19. That is across 60-plus companies and is not significant.

“We continue to monitor for irregularities and abuse. We pick 10-12 companies a week and track them to see if there is a pattern developing. If there is, we call them and determine what is going on. Some carriers have come to us and said ‘no cancellations!’ We said, ‘Wonderful. If you can get the whole industry to agree, great.'”

The new system seems destined to be better than the old. “If Marine Atlantic continues to work at it, we feel it will be a good system. Some carriers already feel it is,” Picard says.

“It is a little early in the game to suggest that it has improved my business, but it has improved predictability. Now we can load the trailer based on the schedule. It is a better use of our equipment, to be honest,” Peddle observes.

Roche notes, for example, that carriers can now schedule their trips from St. John’s to Port aux Basques to hit the wharf just in time. In the catch can days, truckers would leave St. John’s with eons of extra time built in, since they could easily miss a couple of boats before getting their turn.

Hillman used to book a lot of premium loads at twice the standard fee to make sure his veggies got to the Rock crispy.

Now, he notes, “We are not booking any more premium loads, so there are big savings for our shippers. I think, down the road, it will also save us money.”

Marine Atlantic expected its online system to be running by early June. It will offer each carrier that wants to book online a profile name and password to access and track their account with their computers; ie., see available space, change and cancel reservations.

Some issues still stick in carriers’ craws: The $150 late check-in fee is “atrocious,” says Peddle. He is pushing to get the five-hour cut-off for drop trailers reduced to three, which is the live load cut-off.

Too, it will be a white-knuckle summer for capacity. “We have seen a 17% increase in tractor-trailer traffic since January 1,” Roche says.

“In (late May) we learned that a carrier has a contract to move 104 loads, and another has a contract to move 150 loads within the next six weeks.”

Christmas, however, is not far away: In December Marine Atlantic will take possession of two nearly new ferries in a leasing deal that will see creaky old MV Caribou and MV Joseph and Clara Smallwood replaced.


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