Did ferry fares really have to go up?

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Ensuring that your vessels can be run as cheaply as possible is the other thing you would expect to be standard practice at Ferries, which was set up with a commercial mandate and handed a set of highly paid executives to carry it out.

The big Super Cs, the new company's first major newbuilds, ordered with much fanfare from Germany on the theory we were buying the best shipyard expertise around, aren't fuel efficient. 

They were never going to be. They're based on an older design, with a very wide, flat bottom, in part because the company wanted to reduce wake around its terminals. Water is sticky; pushing a ferry through it requires as efficient a hull as you can design.

The company's own records showed that the new ferries ate more fuel than the old ones. On the Nanaimo-Horsehoe Bay run, the new Coastal Renaissance was at one point averaging 8,416 litres per round trip; the much older Queen of Oak Bay was averaging 6,491 litres per round trip on the same route. That's a big difference, and impossible to explain for what were supposed to be state-of-the-art ferries.

Things like hedging and ensuring your vessels are fuel efficient are hard topics for the public, and even the ferry authority board that oversees the company on behalf of the government and the public, to ask. You need to figure out what you should be expecting of a company, and how well other companies operate, to know where to start examining your own ferry operation.

Questions like that require some expertise on the part of the government as well.

We need ministers who understand what handing a company a commercial mandate means. Who understand what a real-life, private-sector ferry company looks like. And who understand what kind of expertise you have to assemble to keep the thing afloat -- both in the head office, where you need as much solid maritime experience from around the world as you can afford, and at the boardroom table, where you need oversight by people who know which questions to ask and which line items to track.

It didn't help to hire David Hahn as president, given his background in marketing and airline terminals.

It was clear that former premier Gordon Campbell, who privatized the company, clearly envisioned a future in which Ferries would simply operate the terminals -- and that a fleet of private companies would have bid on the rights to run the present ferry routes themselves.

Hahn might have been good at running ferry terminals. He did that before, with airlines. 

What he didn't have experience with was building vessels, or hiring crew to run them, or balancing an entire coast full of people and businesses depending on the monopoly service that he was in charge of.

It didn't help to allow the same people to sit on the company's board and on the board of the ferry authority that oversees the company. Or to take six years to insist the boards have different members. Or to allow them to operate, overall, with so little maritime expertise.

All of this is a long way around a simple point: when we hear that fares are going up, it's more useful to ask why that might be than to simply demand the government dump yet more subsidy money into a company that may not be equipped to operate properly with its present managers.

Until someone sorts out what's really going wrong, and fixes it, nothing's going to change.

There are signs of hope on the horizon.

Ferry commissioner Gord Macatee is now conducting a review of Ferries' operations. He's expected to table a report for the government by late January, and with luck, and some of the presentations and prodding he's been given, he might have some ideas on how to proceed.

The provincial Liberals and NDP are busy right now too, behind the scenes, weighing new scenarios for the company and preparing to respond to Macatee's report.

All we can hope is that somewhere in the mix, some considerable attention is paid to bringing some serious maritime experience -- financial, operational and architectural -- to the company. And that the board that oversees Ferries for us assembles some similarly appropriate expertise. And that the transport minister, whatever his party stripe, starts paying some real attention.

Because it really doesn't matter how you arrange the chairs. Sometimes what matters most is who's sitting in them.

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