Monday, 15 August 2011

Duke Point reflected.......

Waiting in line

Sunday, 14 August 2011

The great Gabriola ferry debate

Let's be honest.... Gabriola has a much better ferry service than most of the gulf islands. Why? Well, for one thing, we live on the only gulf island with a ferry that takes us right into town, where we can shop, eat out and so much more within walking distance of the ferry terminal. And, with an experience card, the round trip passenger fare is only a buck more than a round trip on Nanaimo Transit. 

OK, nothing's perfect - and some believe that our ferries should be free because they are our highways - and we've already paid for the highways through our taxes haven't we? Well, maybe so..... but the reality is that ferries (and bridges, for that matter) take a whole lot more maintenance than highways and if we value living on a small island so much then we should expect to pay something for the privilege.

Love'em or hate'em, BC Ferries provides a service that is important to all of us - and which has to be paid for somehow. True, they aren't the world's greatest at customer service - and the ethos of the organisation seems increasingly to put profit before service. But the reality is that there is no profit any more - and BC Ferries is faced with having to cut costs just to stay afloat (sorry, no pun intended). No surprise then that the corporation favours moving the Gabriola ferry to Duke Point, where it already employs terminal staff (who, let's face it, are not exactly rushed off their feet dealing with one ferry every two and a half hours) and from where the crossing to Gabriola is only about half the distance from Nanaimo Harbour. 

To their credit, BC Ferries acknowledges that the community has given this idea a big thumbs down and has said as much to the Ferry Commissioner. Yet, just because some hapless truck driver manages to close down the Nanaimo Harbour terminal by ignoring warnings that (so we are told) he was given about the structural integrity of the ferry ramp here we are, with the terminal closed, a ferry to Duke Point, a water taxi to Nanaimo ....  and conspiracy theories galore. 

At least we have been given an alternative - if the same thing had happened at Chemainus or Buckley Bay, how would residents of Thetis, Penelakut, Hornby or Denman get into town?  In all probability the answer is they would be provided with a water taxi for foot passengers, maybe a barge service for essential supply trucks - but no means of taking their car on or off the island. We're lucky here on Gabriola, and maybe that's worth remembering.

So here we are, three days into an emergency transport plan that has actually worked remarkably well, thanks to the good weather (smooth crossings so far on the water taxi) and the fact that the kids are home from school for the summer - so that, at the drop of a hat, the Scholarship can be released from its normal school run duties on Salt Spring Island to provide a day-long service for Gabriola. No-one questions how long the Scholarship's crew worked on Friday (best not maybe) or how much they, or Gulf Islands Water Taxi, were being paid for their efforts. Let's just say that the company will likely make a comfortable profit out of BC Ferries' misfortune. But we don't mind that, do we? After all, it's a private business isn't it? Just like BC Ferries. Or maybe that's different. But why so?

Back in the UK, the conservatives privatised the National Bus Company in 1986 and British Railways in 1993. In both cases, screams of public outcry echoed round the country for more than 10 years until suddenly we started to realise that the quality of service we were getting from the private companies was, in many cases, far better than had been the case while the industry was in government hands. Yes, there were the Fat Cats along the way who had walked away with millions - but generally, that was because they had taken the financial risk by re-investing in new, more efficient infrastructure and had actually listened to what customers said they wanted. Result? A more reliable service, fewer complaints - and (usually) happier customers. 

Few now believe that a return to government-run buses and trains would benefit anyone. The private sector has proved itself capable of running services more efficiently and at lower cost. Yet still the argument rolls on that these are public services and the public should have a greater say in how they are run. In a sense, the public does have a say, since it elected the local and national governments that are tasked with regulating the systems. If the system falls down, it's just as likely to be through lack of expertise and poor contract management on the part of the government than through any malpractice by the private contractor.

All of which sounds horribly familiar in the context of BC Ferries, doesn't it?  Have BC Ferries really done such a bad job of meeting their obligation to government under the Coastal Ferry Act? Or is it the Act itself that has failed to adequately protect public interest?  In reality it's probably a little of both, and maybe it's time that the Province and the Ferry Commission took a long hard look at whether the Ferry Advisory Committees - supposedly the public watchdogs for ferry users - are really achieving what they should. 

Critics point to a lack of impartiality since FAC members are appointed by BC Ferries, and not by public nomination. Little surprise, therefore, that the public's confidence in the role of FAC's is wearing thin. To be effective, FAC members need to be adequately briefed by BC Ferries on how the business is run, and the financial implications of any proposed change. But that doesn't mean that the FAC should be run as if it was part of the company.  Public watchdogs should function independently of the service provider, but within clear terms of reference to ensure that the viability of the business (and therefore the service to the customer) is not prejudiced.  

The Ferry Commission should take advantage of the extra time allowed for its review of the BC Ferries contract to make one simple change to the constitution of FACs - to give them true independence in their role, and regain the confidence of their customers. It works with the privatised railway and bus industries in the UK, and it can work here in BC with the ferry system.

Friday, 12 August 2011

Ferry disruption

Workcrews resurfacing the Nanaimo Harbour ferry ramp last night got a nasty shock when a paving truck went through the barrier and toppled into the Harbour. Judging by the Nanaimo Daily News photo (below) it's not going to be a quick fix. Latest reports suggest the wooden trestle may have given way - so divers are now inspecting the structure to assess its condition.

While repairs are taking place, the Quinsam will continue sailing to Duke Point and a water taxi will be provided to and from Dock F in Nanaimo Harbour.  Sounds like this arrangement will continue over the weekend at least.  Could this play into BC Ferries' long-term plans I wonder?.......

Thursday, 4 August 2011

The morning after

Just before 9 this morning, readers of the island's Facebook Community Bulletin page got the news they had been waiting all night to hear - police had caught the person they were looking for in connection with a brutal stabbing of a mother and her 18 year old son yesterday afternoon.

Throughout the night, the Community Bulletin page had been buzzing with activity - as had the skies and roads of the island, as police mounted a search for the perpetrator. 

For many folk on the island, last night was probably the first time they locked their doors before heading for bed. Many undoubtedly found it difficult to sleep; others probably didn't even try.  As the news of the arrest broke this morning you could almost feel a sigh of relief from the whole island.

As a relative newcomer to the island, following the Bulletin page for the first time during the event provided a warts-and-all insight into the community we now share. Long before the media revealed the name of the person that police were seeking, there were contributors who knew those involved but were keeping tight lipped about their names. Most observers respected the privacy of those affected; others were adamant that the community should know. Now and again, tensions spilled out as comments were posted - probably in the heat of the moment - that caused offence to other readers of the board. At times the generation gap opened up and sensitivities boiled over. Just like any other community, but maybe just a little to publicly for many's liking.

The horror of the night may be over, but the aftermath will be present for a long, long time.  For those who were close to the victims, yesterday will never be forgotten. I'm sure there are folk on the island who have yet to learn what's happened, but if nothing else, the past 18 hours have demonstrated the power, good or bad, exerted by social media in distributing (and sometimes creating) news long before the traditional media can do so. 

My quotes of the evening, from contributors on the island.....

      -    how did it make the news already - if it only happened a few hours ago?
      -    When I lived in [ - ]  I didn't hear nearly the amount of sirens that have been screaming around here lately. I realize there is sometimes a need for them, but this is getting a bit much.

Welcome to the world.

Monday, 1 August 2011

A giant reborn

In February 1911, the Canadian National Pacific Railway dedicated a new line on Vancouver Island to connect Victoria to the northern logging communities of Nootka Sound, passing through Cowichan Lake, Port Alberni and Duncan Bay. In the event, the line never reached Nootka Sound - indeed it never even made it to Port Alberni, ending instead at Youbou, on the north shore of Cowichan Lake.

Construction was painfully slow and by 1918 only 4 miles of track had been laid. The line posed many challenges, including numerous creeks that would have to be crossed on wooden trestles. The greatest challenge was to be the crossing of the Koksilah River, north of Shawnigan Lake, where the Kinsol Trestle (named after the nearby King Solomon mine) would number among the largest Howe truss, bent pile wooden trestles in the world. The Howe truss formed a high level bridge over the deepest part of the valley, and over the Koksilah River itself.

Following devastating floods in 1930, the Kinsol Trestle had to be extensively rebuilt and the decision was taken to lower the Howe truss so that it rested directly on stone piers on either side of the river. The trestle was then reconstructed over the top of the truss, where it remains to this day.  The completed trestle is captured in this [undated] print entitled "Across the Abyss" by Gabriola artist, Paul Grignon.

The last train crossed the trestle on June 20, 1979 and the rails were removed in 1983. Fires, vandalism and neglect took its toll on the structure and, eventually, the north and south accesses were removed for safety reasons.

The CN line and the trestle are now part of the Trans-Canada Trail. Finally, after years of campaigns to save the trestle, rehabilitation work began in 2010. Throughout the reconstruction period, work was monitored by an on-site webcam and this fascinating time-lapse film has been produced by the Shawnigan Lake Historical Society.

The Kinsol Trestle was reopened for hikers and cyclists on July 28, 2011 - finally closing the 'missing link' in the Cowichan Valley Trail and moving the concept of a coast-to-coast Trans Canada Trail another step forward.  The sheer scale of the task - and the beauty of the finished project - will surely make the Kinsol Trestle a "must-see" for years to come. Click on the images for a larger view.

Legpower replaces steam in today's view "Across the Abyss"
A stunning walkway spans the missing link
The scale is breathtaking
The Howe Truss still spans the Koksilah River
Separate sections within the trestle.

Amazingly, more than 50% of the original timbers have been saved

The view from below.......
.... and a reward for tired legs!
The Kinsol Trestle can be accessed along the Trans-Canada Trail from either Shawnigan Lake or Riverside Road, south of Duncan.