This article was first published in Spring/Summer 2018 issue of the International Cruise & Ferry Review. All information was correct at the time of printing, but may since have changed.
Operating in an Emission Control Area with some of the world’s toughest environmental regulations, British Columbia-based BC Ferries has an even stricter mandate than most. Carrying passengers on 25 routes along British Columbia’s 1,600 kilometres of coastline, often filling in for a geographically remote road system, its area of operation is one of pristine, untouched coastline, overseen hawkishly by a local government anxious to see it remains that way. As well as large areas reserved for British Columbia’s native First Nations population, the straits leading along the British Columbia coast teem with marine life, some of which is highly endangered.
Consequently, BC Ferries cannot avoid its obligations to the local environment. Last year it introduced three new Salish Class ferries to replace vessels that were more than 50 years old. With hulls bedecked by intricate patterns designed by artists from three of British Columbia’s Coast Salish communities, the 107-metre vessels are dual-fuel, reducing harmful sulphur emissions.
“Conducting our operations in a manner that is environmentally responsible is a core value at BC Ferries,” says Corrine Storey, the line’s vice president and chief operating officer. “The operation of the Salish Class vessels on LNG will reduce greenhouse gas emissions by about 2,400 kilograms per trip compared to the ships they replaced. We also purchased a 75-metre vessel to start a direct summer seasonal route to the mid-coast of British Columbia. The ship, renamed Northern Sea Wolf, arrived in December and is currently undergoing a major CAN$20million (US$1.79 million) upgrade to bring her in line with our corporate standards.”
Since 2003, BC Ferries has added 12 new ships and rebuilt or renovated 25 of its terminals. The existing fleet is regularly upgraded. “With our 36 ships servicing 25 routes, we are in a constant state of renewal,” explains Storey. “The operational lifecycle of vessels in our fleet is approximately 45 years. The current average age of our ships is around 30 years. We plan quarter-life, mid-life and three-quarter life upgrades on our ships to ensure they are reliable, and take advantage of new technologies like natural gas-fuelled engines when equipment requires renewal. It’s a fine balance to get full utilisation from an asset before replacing it with a new ship.”
2017 was no exception. “One of our two largest ships, the 167-metre Spirit of British Columbia, commenced her mid-life upgrade, which includes conversion to dual-fuel operation,” says Storey. “The vessel will return to service this summer with major mechanical and electronic upgrades and totally renovated passenger accommodation areas.”
For Vancouver denizens, the environment is personal, and it serves BC Ferries well to think ahead of the curve in this respect. At times, this involves consideration of issues that might not even have crossed the regulator’s desk. “Our customers want us to be safe, reliable and affordable,” comments Storey. “But they also want more choice and they want us to be greener. Onboard our vessels, we’ve introduced gluten-free and vegan menu items. Our composting programme has diverted nearly 500,000 kilograms of waste from landfills. At two of our major terminals, over 25,000 milk jugs, tyres and plastic were recycled into equipment for new children’s playgrounds. Our continued focus on energy management on our ships and at our terminals has resulted in energy savings equivalent to the consumption of 500 average homes annually.”
One of the local considerations is the wildlife. Indigenous to British Columbia is a population of endangered orcas, of which only 82 remain. Research shows that the engine noise from ships traversing the Salish Sea is interfering with the whales’ echolocation and feeding, and local authorities are mulling the introduction of port fee discounts for silent vessels. Storey is already thinking ahead to silent, battery-electric propulsion.
“We plan to build 20 more ships and modernise another 20 terminals over the next 12 years to ensure we provide a reliable service for generations to come,” she says. “These ships will embrace LNG fuel and electric technologies to operate cleanly, efficiently and with the lowest possible environmental footprint. We have two hybrid electric ferries already under construction that are capable of conversion to full electric operation when the shore infrastructure becomes available.”
Evidence suggests various factors have helped ferry traffic to grow 5% in two years. “Given the value of the Canadian dollar, more Americans are visiting us and more Canadians are taking ‘staycations’ – British Columbia is an attractive destination for European and Asian tourists alike,” Storey indicates.
But it’s not enough simply to cultivate an attractive outward-facing image, and BC Ferries’ current priority is improving the onboard experience.
“We continuously invest in our system to meet and exceed our customers’ travel experience to encourage people to travel,” Storey comments. “BC Ferries Vacations offers over 100 travel packages for customers. We’re introducing a barista coffee bar on our Spirit Class vessels and we’ve made improvements to make our pet areas more comfortable.
“We offer onboard entertainment with our summer Coastal Naturalist programme to educate customers about the areas they are travelling through. This year, we’re starting a direct summer service between Port Hardy and Bella Coola, which will open up tourism opportunities and showcase aboriginal culture.”
BC Ferries is also working on wi-fi for customers. “With so many people carrying multiple devices, we aren’t able to keep up with the demand with our current land-based system, so wi-fi is a priority for the coming year,” says Storey.
In addition, BC Ferries has significantly upgraded its IT platforms to modernise the way it sets pricing, sells travel and manages traffic loads. “We want to offer our customers more flexibility in how they book travel, reduce wait times and offer discounts at less popular times,” Storey says. “These new tools will also create efficiencies within our operation. We’re always looking for ways to improve our operations while we connect communities and customers to the people and places that are important in their lives.
“Our goal is to provide our passengers with safe and reliable long-term service by being economically, environmentally and socially responsible. We constantly look for new ways to deliver the ‘wow’ to the millions of customers who travel with us each year.”
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