Overcoming a challenging period at Owen Sound Transportation Company

Sandra Speares asks Susan Schrempf how Owen Sound Transportation Company’s ferry services in Ontario have been impacted by the Covid-19 pandemic

Overcoming a challenging period at Owen Sound Transportation Company
Chi-Cheemaun is currently providing a limited essential travel service rather than an experiential service in central Ontario

Owen Sound Transportation Company (OSTC) operates three different ferry services in the province of Ontario, which has been the most significantly affected by Covid-19 infection cases in Canada. This had a knock-on effect on all OSTC’s ferry services, which are not expected to relax Covid-19 mitigation measures this year. 

In central Ontario, for example, Chi-Cheemaun had to pivot from offering a highly experiential tourism service to providing a limited essential transportation service. “When ferry services began on 1 June 2020 and then again on 8 June 2021 all onboard services closed, and passenger numbers were significantly limited by Transport Canada and Ontario Public Health restrictions,” explains Susan Schrempf, chief executive of OSTC.  

This spring, Pelee Islander and Pelee Islander 2 experienced similar operating conditions to 2020 in south-west Ontario. Until the end of April, Pelee Islander operated the service with passengers remaining in their vehicles, while Pelee Islander 2 operated three days a week for large agriculture vehicles only from May.   

On 1 June 2021, Pelee Islander 2 was scheduled to go into daily service and replace Pelee Islander for passenger and vehicle services. However, a worldwide shortage of certified officers and fierce competition between commercial shipping companies outbidding each other for officers to keep their vessels running forced OTSC to reduce services and change its operating schedule. This situation was resolved in mid-July and Pelee Islander 2 will remain in daily service for the duration of the 2021 season with all Covid mitigation protocols in place. As the Canadian border did not reopen to non-essential US citizens until 9 August 2021, and the US border remained closed to non-essential Canadian visitors, the Pelee Island to Sandusky, Ohio ferry has not restarted this year. 

In northern Ontario, landing craft-style ferry Niska 1 continues to be an essential part of the transportation system, shipping goods from Moosonee to Moose Factory Island. The island is home to Moose Cree First Nation, which suffered a Covid-19 outbreak this spring. Fortunately, it was well controlled and ferry transportation services commenced as scheduled in early June. 

Lack of available vaccinations presented the largest obstacle for keeping ferry crews safe throughout 2020 and into early spring 2021, particularly for those living onboard the Pelee Island and Manitoulin Island ferries. “Fortunately, OSTC completed the 2020 season with no crew or passenger infections on any of its ferry services,” says Schrempf. “Crew were all safely vaccinated by mid-June 2021, adding another layer of protection.”    

OSTC does not anticipate being able to return to its pre-Covid ferry service offering before 2022. “If the demand for local travel in 2021 is an indicator for 2022, traffic numbers should begin to normalise and meet maximum ferry capacity,” says Schrempf. “The ferry service has seen a sharp rise in the number of tourists holidaying in recreational vehicles and motorhomes since the start of the pandemic. We expect this trend to continue if it’s not dampened by the high cost of fuel and efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. 

 “We haven’t seen the typical weekend traffic surges because people are working remotely and have more flexible schedules, so ferry traffic has become more evenly distributed through the week. We do not expect to see weekend traffic surges return, except for holiday weekends.” 

Schrempf says OSTC also faces employment challenges. “Ferries are not competitive when trying to attract mariners and Canada has not done a great job of showcasing careers in the marine industry, so it’s now feeling the impact of 20 years of directing young people to university degrees rather than skilled trades,” she explains. “This will not be turned around overnight. Further, the marine sector and Canadian society have not done enough work to remove barriers that keep over 50 per cent of the available workforce out of the industry.”   

 In future, OSTC plans to replace Chi-Cheemaun and possibly Pelee Islander on the Pelee Island service, but there will be challenges when it comes to making them environmentally friendly, says Schrempf. “If the onshore infrastructure is not available to support the newer environmentally favourable technologies, the ferries will continue to be dependent on fossil fuels and older technology. However, this is not a position we want to be in when we are designing ferries that need to operate for half a century.”

This article was first published in the Autumn/Winter issue of Cruise & Ferry Review. All information was correct at the time of printing, but may since have changed. 

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By Sandra Speares
23 November 2021

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