Welcoming BC Ferries President/CEO Nicholas Jimenez!
A total of 32 joined us to welcome BC Ferries’ President and CEO Nicolas Jimenez to this ASK Salt Spring gathering. While possibly fewer participants than anticipated, everyone had a chance to ask their questions and participate in a rich and informative discussion with Nicolas. And, enjoy a wonderful carrot cake donated by our ever-generous Country Grocer.
After his Territorial Acknowledgement, Nicolas told us that, while not a mariner, he is excited to be involved in a community of mariners. Aware that when he came into this job six months ago, the system was not at its finest, he brings optimism for what BC Ferries can become. A seasoned manager with 20 years in leadership roles at ICBC (including five as CEO), he brings a strong sense of reality and practical activism to BC Ferries’ challenges. Recognizing that there are no simple answers, he is committed to honestly telling us those things that BC Ferries should and will do as well as other things that BC Ferries should do but may not be able to accomplish.
The first participant asked Nicolas to explain an apparent reverse in the hoped-for electrification of our fleet. Responding that electrifying new vessels is a BC Ferries commitment, Nicolas has challenged his team to build vessels that will serve us well until near the end of the century. BC ferries has just approved the procurement phase for four new Island Class vessels, two of which are slated for the Vesuvius-Crofton route. Nicolas believes that there has been a commitment to electrification of these vessels, but he promised to confirm and relay this MLA Adam Olsen. (Throughout this report, there are a number of questions Nicolas promised to confirm with his team and give Adam the full answer. When Adam has these answers, he will share them with us.)
We also learned a bit about the complexity of the terminal upgrades needed for this electrification. While hybrid-electric vessels in other countries often have hours to recharge between sailings, ours have minimal time, often needing to be charged and ready in less than 30 minutes. Charging at the required scale and speed has not been achieved yet anywhere in the world. Other ferry companies are watching with interest to see if BC ferries can meet this electrification challenge. While Nicolas believes that this daunting technical requirement for extremely rapid recharge will be solved, he also reminded us of the fiscal implications: The massive power needed for this charging infrastructure at our largest terminals will require 100s of millions of dollars in terminal upgrades, with implications for other important BC Ferries priorities.
It was generally-agreed that accomplishing this magnitude of electrification will require strong public support to spur federal and provincial funding partnerships. If routes and terminals are able to achieve electrification (including Salt Spring), some in the audience noted that this would have the potential of also improving Salt Spring infrastructure.
The next participant asked Nicolas to explain why foot passengers were largely-ignored, often waiting for long periods in the cold and, in Long Harbour, forced to breathe the exhaust of loading vehicles. Nicolas reminded us that our current ferry system was established in the 1960s, a period when cars were the focus of our transportation. As those choosing to cycle and walk is rapidly-expanding, BC Ferries needs to adjust to current realities. We learned of a long term strategic visioning process underway, which will soon include a public engagement component (the exact timing of which is still being planned). Nicolas is hopeful that this process will clarify future directions, assessing, among other things, whether BC Ferries should retain its vehicle-focus.
In efforts to provide a better walk-on experience, Nicolas meets regularly with BC Transit and Translink executives to better coordinate schedules. While he is optimistic of better connections, he did remind us that when a ferry is late beyond a certain threshold agreed to by ferry and transit authorities, buses often cannot wait due to the disruptions this delay would cause elsewhere in their network.
In addition to coordination with land transit options, Nicolas is also aware that better service for cyclists and walk-on passengers requires terminal upgrades. While plans are being developed for better shelter for Tssawwassen passengers awaiting the bus, Nicolas reminded us that BC Ferries has 49 terminals, each with significant upgrade needs and balanced by other financial priorities. But, there are also practical, less-expensive solutions: We learned about an electric shuttle at the Skidegate terminal on Haida Gwaii to transport walk-on passengers in need, avoiding the long walk, too often in inclement weather.
When a cyclist asked why their needs are largely-ignored, Nicolas agreed that BC ferries has, to date, not done enough to prioritize cycling infrastructure. He also reminded us that it comes down - again - to prioritization as some cycling infrastructure upgrades (which have to meet safety standards) would impact vehicle space on vessels.
When asked what BC Ferries would do to help promote the Salish Sea Trail (https://www.google.com/maps/d/viewer?mid=1wHxZQtmUblq8uJ5aJQ2F8x_WIxg&ll=48.655799690914215,-123.706725&z=10), Nicolas was open to conversations about promoting this cycling option. As an aside, we learned that BC Ferries markets vacation packages internationally, with sales of approximately $10 million a year to domestic and international travelers. Adding information about cycling options may be possible, but he would have to consult with his team.
A participant, citing the frustration of dependence upon ferry connections for medical appointments, asked if the purchase of a thru-fare on the Fulford ferry could give the same priority as a Vancouver-bound reservation. He also asked why the thru fare price of the Tssawwassan - Fulford route could not also be available on the Horseshoe - Nanaimo route. This participant thought that it could be very easy to offer this discount at Crofton rather than being charged the full fair. While Nichols agreed that these are areas of concern for customers, he promised a more complete answer after conferring with his team.
When asked why the BC Ferries senior staff seemed to be comprised of business graduates rather than marine professionals, Nicolas asked us to look at organization charts. While some of these changes were only made a few weeks ago, Nicolas’s executive team includes a marine engineer with 30 years of experience, a Naval shipbuilder, a manager with 34 years of experience in terminal operations, and a Vice President responsible for marine operations who has an extensive marine and naval background.
Concerning worker housing, a participant asked about the impact of our worker housing shortage upon upon local ferry staffing. Nicolas responded that staffing issues challenge BC ferries throughout the system - especially in the north and on the Gulf Islands - and he speaks loudly and often about the impacts of the housing shortage on our ferry service.
Later in the conversation, Nicolas was asked whether BC Ferries would participate in Salt Spring’s new home share matching service, the Housing Now Registry (https://www.sgicommunityresources.ca/housing-now-home/). Seeing the value of this and with an initial Yes!, Nicolas promised to confirm, learning more about what was currently being done on Salt Spring by his team to find housing for staff.
Nicolas was asked how he was addressing staff shortage issues. Reminding us that staff shortages are not unique to BC Ferries, he also recognized that improvements were needed. Challenged by a demographic shift and differences in the worker priorities, BC Ferries needs to take a hard look at training and how to more-effectively bring more workers into the system. Some steps in this direction already in place are:
A shift from seasonal to casual status for new hires, which guarantees hours in the peak summer period (rather than reliance on-call assignments),
Certificate allowances offering pay premiums for people in specialized roles,
Extra pay for those who work overnight, primarily our engineering teams,
International recruitment, honouring certifications from other countries, and
Doubling of the training budget from COVID-related reductions.
These measures are making a difference, with ~450 cancellations this year (to date) because of crewing shortages compared to 1,160 for all of last year. We learned from Nicholas that in 2023 more than 98.5% of all sailings have left as scheduled. Additionally, there has been an increase of approximately 6% in passengers carried. Despite this success, every one of these changes cost money. Traditionally focused on fare affordability, that on-going conversation about priorities will include balancing long-term investments with their impact on fares.
These staffing measures require time and effort in addition to funding. For example, while international recruitment has successfully-resulted in about 80 employees from the Ukraine, it is complicated as a worker requires a Permanent Residence card. Other challenges include the reality that some training - like high voltage training - requires travel to the East Coast. This extended time away from work is especially difficult, leaving the system at risk by lowering staffing levels for key roles.
Also, despite steps in the right direction, we were reminded that it requires more than just more money and training opportunities to build a career force of workers. It takes years. For example, it takes 10-15 years to becomes a Master. But, according to Nicolas, We are not standing still. What I can promise is that what we are doing today is more than we were doing yesterday.
We were told that, while expected to be fewer, cancellations will continue. Nicolas was asked if Transport Canada could make its staffing regulations more flexible to avoid these cancellations. BC Ferries has worked with Transport Canada since 2017 to apply a risk-based approach to minimum staffing levels on some of its vessels. While it is rumoured that sailings are cancelled if only one employee is absent, we learned that it’s a bit more complicated. There are times when the absence of a specific role (like an engineer) can indeed impact sailings. While a ship cannot sail without its full compliment of engineers, if a staff member from catering, for example, is missing, a vessel can sail with a lower customer capacity. (Remember, all employees are there to provide safety even though they may spend most of their days cooking or cleaning. If they are missing, ratios shift and, while the ship may still be allowed to sail, fewer passengers will be allowed.)
A participant asked why we needed a reservation. Wouldn’t it be fairer to board on a first come, first served system? We learned that these reservations are very helpful aiding BC Ferries to anticipate demand as well as predict future travel patterns. It also ensures a much smoother and more efficient experience at our terminals, many of which struggle to handle large volumes given their age and/or location. A participant reminded Nicolas that two years ago, we were promised priority for those traveling for medical appointments. Nicolas promised to get the details of this and get these answers to us through Adam.
Nicolas was asked if he had seen the recently-released MoTI Salt Spring Island Cycling Safety Review (https://www2.gov.bc.ca/assets/gov/driving-and-transportation/reports-and-reference/reports-and-studies/vancouver-island-south-coast/2023-04-21_salt_spring_island_cycling_safety_review.pdf) with an emphasis on terminal safety concerns. While he had not read it, Nicolas promised to read it with follow-up considerations in mind.
When asked why are dishes no longer being used on the island class vessels, creating far more waste, Nicolas promised to find out for us.
Nicolas was a bit surprised by the recent publicity about fines for missed sailings. We learned that these fines have been in the contract for the past two decades. Justifiably requiring a minimum level of service, we learned that these fines will only be imposed if sailings fall below the contracted requirements. As BC Ferries regularly schedules more than this required minimum, Nicolas does not expect many instances in which sailings will drop below the contacted number, requiring fines to be imposed.
The end of our time together was fast approaching, and Nicolas had to catch a ferry :). In conclusion, he was asked whether this was more fun than ICBC. Generating a general laugh, Nicolas responded that, despite daunting challenges, he was glad that he had made the shift. He acknowledged the amazing 5,200 employees who, while seldom lauded, care deeply about BC Ferries becoming the best that it can be. And, actualizing this wish is what fuels Nicolas to ever-improving the system.
As one long-time resident said as we prepared to leave: I have attended numerous BC ferries meetings. This is the first one I have left happy. With applause and genuine appreciation - and a promise from Nicolas to come back again - we thanked him for his willingness to listen, honesty about challenges, and personalizing this enormous organisation by his sense of humor and clear passion for his new role. (Thank-you, Nicolas!)
Please join us this Friday, October 27, 11-1, in the SIMS (former Middle School) classroom next to the Boardroom for a discussion about our food security.
Come to this ASK Salt Spring gathering to welcome an amazing panel of experts from Salt Spring’s Agricultural Alliance and Farmland Trust to lead us in a discussion about why, despite the abundance of our island, we continue to locally produce only 6% of our food.
Come learn about courageous steps being taken to increase our food security including the composting ECO drum, the abattoir, seed saving, the Root, and farmland matching.
Hope to see you this Friday for a fascinating discussion!
ASK Salt Spring now has ongoing funding! A heartfelt THANK-YOU to the Institute for Sustainability, Education, and Action (I-SEA) and its Executive Director, Peter Allen !!!
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You can now give the Return It change you earn from your bottles to ASK Salt Spring: Account #230.
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monthly schedule of upcoming gatherings? Asksaltspring.com.
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