PORT AUX BASQUE, Nfld. – Imagine never knowing from one day to the next, month after horrid month, if your favourite 180-kilo-metre stretch of Trans-Canada Highway is open or closed.
Imagine hundreds of trucks and drivers camped out on the sides of the road, bumming lifts into town for grub while their cargo rots and their carriers’ cash gurgles into the ditch. It would be a national disgrace.
Yet truckers have been living this on the crossing between North Sydney in Nova Scotia and Port aux Basque in Newfoundland since last fall. On many days, upward of 200 trucks have been stranded at both ends because of a lousy combination of mechanical problems on the Marine Atlantic ferries and poor weather.
For example, last summer something got ground up in one of the MV Caribou’s engines, which means that it must be taken out of service sometime between mid-February and spring for a six-to eight-week engine rebuild. For whatever reason, Marine Atlantic, which moved 92,000 commercial units across the Cabot Strait in 2008, did not do it during the six-weeks the Caribou was out of service for scheduled maintenance from January to mid-February.
In early December, someone discovered a crack on the upper deck of the ramp at the Port aux Basque dock, preventing upper deck unloading from the ferries. Although Marine Atlantic repaired the problem by Christmas, deck space on the Caribou and MV Atlantic Freighter (now permanently retired) was reduced by 50% because they lack internal ramps to move vehicles between their upper and lower decks.
So far this year Marine Atlantic has been running the MV Clara and Joseph Smallwood and the MV Leif Ericson, with no back-up ferry, giving it less capacity than the Smallwood and Caribou, which normally have the winter shift.
The ace up Marine Atlantic’s sleeve is its new big boat, the MV Atlantic Vision, scheduled to be put to sea this April; it has 40% more deck space than the Caribou. But two jokers lurk up the company’s other sleeve: mid-life refits of the Caribou and Smallwood. Marine Atlantic communications officer Tara Laing did not have either refit schedule at her fingertips, but did say that one of the ferries has work planned for this fall.
If the federal or Newfoundland governments are concerned about this hamstrung crown corporation and its ocean route, they are keeping it well-hidden from the Atlantic Provinces Trucking Association (APTA).
“I don’t understand why (Newfoundland Premier) Danny Williams is not on top of this. He has not said anything,” says APTA executive director Peter Nelson.
It is true that Rick Woodford, Newfoundland’s Minister of Works, Services and Transportation, sent a nastygram to Marine Atlantic in January, “expressing his complete dissatisfaction with what he describes as extremely poor ferry services.” However, independent of whatever administrative improvements Marine Atlantic is competent to make, it appears that the company cannot make big improvements independent of the federal budget.
Pathetically, “Marine Atlantic asked us, ‘How do we lobby our masters?'” says Nelson.
Reading between the lines, it sounds as though our putative political leaders in Ottawa are too busy waggling their bums at each other to take action, such as, say, privatizing Marine Atlantic.
“As long as Marine Atlantic’s funding is directly linked to the federal budget process, we will always have these problems. How can you blame Marine Atlantic management? It should be taken out of the federal budget process,” Nelson figures.
Gordon Peddle is the president of D. D. Transport in Mount Pearl, Nfld., and APTA’s chairman.
In the winter he operates about 45 power units in Port aux Basque and North Sydney and 65 the rest of the year.
“When the service is right, you should be able to ship trailers today and receive them tomorrow. But I’ve had times this winter when I’ve had all of my power units parked,” he says.
In late January he sent a letter to federal Minister of Transport John Baird.
“I said that we need to get the maintenance going. We want to see the boats maintained properly and no increase in fares. At the end of the day I don’t see any proactivity on the part of Marine Atlantic. It comes down to Marine Atlantic suggesting that more maintenance come out of its operating budget, which would suggest increasing rates.”
Is privatization the answer? Privatized Bay Ferries, with its relentlessly happy Web site and three-ferry operation between Nova Scotia and Maine, New Brunswick and Prince Edward Island, is extremely well run, according to Nelson.
But, he warns, “If I start screaming that Marine Atlantic should be privatized, I can guarantee you that our members will be hassled tomorrow by (its) union members.”