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BC Ferries will soon face 'penalties' for cancelling sailings due to lack of crew, province says

The B.C. government says it is working on introducing "penalty provisions" for BC Ferries that would apply when the company fails to run core-service sailings because of a lack of crew.

Details of what the penalties will look like are still being worked out, according to a news release issued Tuesday by the provincial Ministry of Transportation and Infrastructure.

"People want to know their sailings will run as scheduled," said Transportation Minister Rob Fleming, in the release.

"While BC Ferries is working hard to secure additional staffing, the provision for penalties is an added measure to hold the company to account for the services it is contracted to provide."

The province said details of how the penalties will be applied will be shared in the spring.

Asked for comment about the prospect of facing penalties for cancelled sailings, BC Ferries spokesperson Deborah Marshall told CTV News via email that the company agreed to penalties as part of its latest Coastal Ferry Services Contract, which was finalized on June 30.

"We believe that our biggest hiring spree in the company’s history over the last year and the additional focus on retention measures positions us well to deliver on our commitments," Marshall said. "We have hired 1,206 employees in the past 12 months, including 136 licensed officers."

The provincial ferry provider has struggled to maintain sufficient crew in recent years, with sailings on major routes getting cancelled due to a lack of staff.

BC United Leader Kevin Falcon was asked about the situation Tuesday and told reporters he believes the province should be looking to the federal government to fix staffing challenges.

"I think we ought to look at the inflexible staffing ratios that Transport Canada applies to ferries and say we want to have some ability to use common sense discretion that doesn't put the public at risk but makes sure that we don’t have to be arbitrarily cancelling ferries because we're one or two people short,” Falcon said.

Since the start of summer, the company's woes have been compounded by unfortunately timed breakdowns of major vessels, including both the Coastal Renaissance and the Coastal Celebration.  

The provincial government announced a $500-million investment in BC Ferries back in February, touting it as a measure aimed at keeping fare increases down.

In its statement Tuesday, the ministry said the BC Ferries commissioner had approved increases averaging 3.2 per cent annually over each of the next four years.

In his own statement, BC Ferries president and CEO Nicolas Jimenez said 3.2 per cent is the "cap" on annual increases.

"BC Ferries gratefully acknowledges the province’s $500-million contribution as integral to allowing the commissioner to cap fare increases to 3.2 per cent each year through to 2028," Jimenez said. "Rising operating costs are putting significant pressure on the system and this decision supports the ferry service operating in the public interest for the next four years."

Without the half-billion-dollar provincial investment, the ministry says, fare increases would've averaged 9.2 per cent per year.

"I know that this past summer has been frustrating for ferry users, and a challenge for BC Ferries given staffing and mechanical issues," said Fleming. "By lowering fare increases with our $500-million investment, BC Ferries can remain focused on delivering the service people need, while growing and modernizing its fleet to improve reliability."

Those efforts – and added expectations – are codified in the province's new, four-year service contract with BC Ferries, which runs from April 1, 2024 through March 31, 2028.

Under the new Coastal Ferry Services Contract, an additional 1,433 round-trip sailings that were previously designated as discretionary will now be considered core services, the ministry said.

The sailings are on 13 minor routes and will add capacity and improve service for smaller, ferry-dependent communities, the province said. 

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