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MOUNT PEARL, Nfld. - Four months after Marine Atlantic implemented a reservation system to replace the first come, first served ferry system for commercial trucks running in and out of Newfoundland, t...

MOUNT PEARL, Nfld. –Four months after Marine Atlantic implemented a reservation system to replace the first come, first served ferry system for commercial trucks running in and out of Newfoundland, truckers are still saying wait times for spots on board are far too long.

In fact, one trucking company has gone so far as to lease its own barge for three years to ensure its loads arrive on time.

Greer Hunt, owner of Hunt’s Transport with terminals in Mount Pearl, Nfld. and Hamilton, Ont. says it was taking weeks to book slots using the new reservation system implemented by Marine Atlantic in the spring. So he chartered a 50-spot barge out of Hamilton, Ont. to run his trucks and their loads through Ontario and up the St. Lawrence River to a dock in the Long Pond area of Conception Bay South in eastern Newfoundland, and back.

“The delays were affecting our business,” says Hunt, whose company hauls lumber and building supplies, among other things. “With Mar ine Atlantic, we couldn’t make the turnaround of trucks in weeks when we used to do it in five to six days.”

Hunt blames the new reservation system, ferry breakdowns, the increasing popularity of Newfoundland as a tourist destination in the summer months (Marine Atlantic hauls passenger vehicles as well as commercial trucks) and Newfoundland’s increasingly vibrant economy for the capacity crunch. But he also blames poor management on Marine Atlantic’s part.

“I don’t think they forecast properly for the volume of freight going to and from the island,” says Hunt. “You can’t make a reservation if there’s not enough space. And the reservation system, which was supposed to help, doesn’t. Anybody can just go in and block off more than they need just in case.”

Hunt and others claim they’ve seen ferries leaving the dock with empty spaces on board, while trucks are still waiting in and outside the yard.

“There are sometimes 300 to 400 trucks lined up, and not just in the yard, because the yard is only open at certain times,” says Hunt. “And drivers are complaining.”

Marvin Way, president of Way’s Transport based in Cornerbrook, Nfld. has heard the complaints as well.

“Drivers are sitting outside the gate for a couple of hours just to get into the yard,” says Way. “I’ve even heard of drivers who have waited for as long as three days. And in a place like Port Aux Basques, where there aren’t many parking spots or places to shower or eat around, it can be pretty tough on the drivers. Drivers don’t get paid for waiting.”

Truckers protest

A group of independent truckers held a protest to draw attention to the problems they have been experiencing in June, parking and slowing traffic off the Trans-Canada Highway to the Marine Atlantic dock in Port Aux Basques.

“We’d been asking for changes to make our lives easier and our businesses more profitable, and after the protest we were able to secure a meeting with Marine Atlantic,” says Chris Howlett, owner of Akita Equipment and Auto Transport and a spokesman for the group of 18 small truck companies which participated in the protest. “But since then, things have just been getting worse and worse.”

Howlett says the group was planning to hold another protest in July but was discouraged from doing so after receiving an e-mail from Marine Atlantic.

“They said they’d do everything they could to have us deemed a security threat,” says Howlett. “But what are the smaller carriers supposed to do? We have to bring this to the public’s attention,” says Howlett, explaining smaller trucking companies don’t have the extra drop trailers needed to handle longer wait times, or the money to reserve extra, perhaps unneeded spaces on the ferry in advance.

Marine Atlantic CEO Wayne Follett, appointed by the federal government to head the Crown corporation in 2008, confirms the company did send a warning e-mail to the protesting truckers.

“The majority of trucking com- panies support the system,” says the CEO. “And we’re finding the system is meeting the objectives it set out to achieve. We have canvassed the industry in Atlantic Canada, through the APTA and through the Canadian Grocers’ Association and what we’re finding is that the vast majority of the industry supports the reservation system…But a small minority of independent truckers are finding the transition to the reservation system more difficult at this point, despite the many changes we’ve made to be more accommodating of their needs.”

Among the changes implemented by Marine Atlantic since the new system came into place is a “wait list” for truckers who are not able to make reservations ahead of time, says Follett.

“Trucks that haven’t reserved a place can now come and take the places of trucks who cancel, on a first come, first served basis,” he explains. “We also have online reservations now. And we only ask for partial payment up front, so cash flow isn’t as much of a challenge.”

Follett says over half the trucks on the wait list get on the next sailing after they arrive, and that 90% of wait listed trucks get on the same day.

“In fact, we find that truckers aren’t making adequate use of the wait list. We currently have less than one truck on the wait list per crossing, when we could accommodate more than that,” he says, adding the wait list was implemented June 30 (after the independent trucker protest).

As for reservations, Follett says spots are available most days of the week but that the wait for a reserved spot on what he calls the “toughest” route from North Sydney to Port Aux Basques can still be from a week to 10 days.

Follett says small trucking companies are not handicapped by the new system.

“We’ve had reports of success from all sizes of companies. Their success really depends on their ability to plan their loads.”

As for the potential for further protests, Follett says “It’s clear that there are some truckers out there who won’t accept anything but a return to the old system. But it’s a small percentage. We’ve indicated to the truckers who have already protested that any further disruption of essential ferry service at this time of year significantly impacts thousands of travellers and the delivery of food to and from Newfoundland and that we will take whatever legal remedy we have available to us to have any disruption stopped, including calling in the police.”

Still, Follett does admit there is a growing need for ferry capacity to and from the island. It’s a need he expects will be met using the $520 million the Crown corporation recently received from the feds.

“A large portion will go towards the acquisition of two new modern and larger mixed use ferries, which will be in service as of next spring, says Follett.

In the meantime, “Marine Atlantic will continue to handle issues with the APTA with the industry through a consultative process,” Follett says.

Companies still frustrated

According to APTA executive director Jean Marc Picard, ongoing consultation is much needed.

“We are hearing concerns from carriers and they’re not just the small ones,” says Picard, who, having just returned from a vacation, already sounds tired. “I’d like to think that’s because it’s the busy season and it’s just a question of capacity boiling over and some mechanical problems with the barges. But the funny thing is, some carriers who weren’t having problems with the reservation system at first are having problems now. I can’t help thinking that things should have gotten better by now, and that some of the problems should have been eliminated. Maybe our expectations were too high.”

Picard’s discouragement is echoed by Way.

“Major carriers are still finding it extremely difficult to get a reservation when they need it,” says Way. “But it seems to me the whole point of the reservation system was to fix the capacity problems. Instead, Marine Atlantic has just pushed the problems off their parking lot and onto the Trans
-Canada Highway. Marine Atlantic should be able to handle the increased capacity with extra crossings or by not using the longer run to Argentia. If they just used the shorter run to Port Aux Basques they’d be able to handle twice the volume…Or they could have a certain amount of first come, first served spaces on every boat. I don’t blame the independents for speaking out,” says Way, adding “someone needs to be pushing solutions down the line.”

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