Broken boat blues

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Last week, the local CBC tweeted a headline: “Marine Atlantic ferries on time.” It was a “Nothing happens” kind of headline, but deliberately so.

Because, with the sorry state of ferry service in this province, ferries running on schedule is definitely news.

That goes for federal and provincial routes.

On Tuesday, the Northern Ranger went out of service because of mechanical problems.

Repairs are expected to last six weeks.

That left 70 passengers stranded in Happy Valley-Goose Bay, until the ferry company chartered small planes to fly them to their remote communities along coastal Labrador.

Their luggage will arrive later by freighter.

At the end of August, Marine Atlantic had to cancel a number of runs between Nova Scotia and Newfoundland after its new ferry Highlanders ran into generator problems.

That ferry was in and out of service for about two weeks, which caused havoc during the busy late summer/Labour Day period.

A similar situation emerged at the beginning of the summer, when the Atlantic Vision broke down just before the busy Canada Day weekend.

Bell Islanders are certainly no strangers to unreliable ferry service.

Breakdowns and scheduling problems are legion with the Flanders, Beaumont Hamel and swing vessel Nonia. The latter Estonia-built ship has a sorry history of troubles dating back to when the Brian Tobin government purchased it in the 1990s.

It’s no wonder that ferry services play front and centre for Bell Islanders every time an election rolls around.

Admittedly, Marine Atlantic deserves credit where credit is due.

Over the past decade, it has retired all of its older boats and replaced them with newer vessels. That includes the MV Leif Ericson (bought in 2001), the Blue Puttees (2010), the Highlanders (2010) and the Atlantic Vision (five-year lease in 2008).

But that offers little comfort to passengers who, faced with ever-increasing fees, still find themselves stranded on either side of the Gulf with alarming regularity.

Those same passengers may be wondering why Marine Atlantic is now planning expensive upgrades to the Port aux Basques terminal.

The $30 million in work includes the decommissioning and replacement of the aging

gulfspan dock and the renovation and upgrading of the terminal building.

If repairs are necessary, the funding is justified.

But many frustrated passengers would likely happily settle for a shotgun shack on shore if it meant a more reliable service on the water.

Meanwhile, residents of Labrador will have to rely on air travel for at least a week while a replacement is found for the Northern Ranger.

That’s something few of them can afford.

Organizations: Marine Atlantic, CBC, Flanders

Geographic location: Newfoundland, Happy Valley, Goose Bay Nova Scotia Estonia Port aux Basques

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