Ferry Advisors’ reservations on BCF reservations plans

The thirteen Ferry Advisory Committee Chairs have called upon the BC Ferry Commissioner to protect the interests of ferry users when he considers BC Ferries’ proposals for a new on-line reservations system.

BC Ferries says their website and ticketing systems are long overdue an overhaul and the Company has applied to the BC Ferry Commissioner for approval for a multi-million dollar “Fare Flexibility and Digital Experience Initiative” to enable them to introduce a range of discounted fare products on the four major routes out of Horseshoe Bay and Tsawwassen, followed by four other routes on which reservations are currently available.

The FAC Chairs acknowledge that the present system, where customers who reserve in advance for ferry travel are charged up to $22 for the privilege, works contrary to most reservation systems that offer discounts for advance payment – and they broadly welcome BC Ferries’ proposals to drop the reservation charge. But BC Ferries currently makes $13 million income from reservation fees and that lost income – together with the cost of financing the new investment – will all have to be recovered through ferry fares. Once the system is operational, BC Ferries hopes that the discounts they will offer will encourage more of us to reserve (and pay) in advance for ferry travel – in the full expectation that traffic volumes will grow as a result.

The problem, say the FAC Chairs, is that although the Ferry Commission regulates ferry fares, the “price cap” (the maximum fare increase that BC Ferries is allowed to impose) is regulated against the average fare paid,  not against individual fares.  Thus, if BC Ferries makes discounted fares available to up to 80% of their customers who travel on the major routes, then the remaining 20% (including most of us who depend on the minor ferry routes) could face higher prices as a result – and providing the average fare stays within the price cap, there’s effectively no limit to the increase that BC Ferries could apply to non-reservable fares.

Gabriola FAC Chair John Hodgkins sees a close parallel with Britain’s railways after privatisation, when train operators wanted to offer deep discounts to attract new passengers to fill thousands of empty seats. Rail Regulators accepted this was desirable, but to ensure that the train operators didn’t impose higher fares on regular commuters, limits were was imposed on permitted fare increases for “regulated” rail fares (season tickets, commuter fares and most tickets purchased on the day of travel), pushing the incentive back onto train operators to fund the discounts offered for advance bookings by attracting new business.

Ferry Advisors believe the same principle should be applied to ferry fares. After all, why should ferry users who (for whatever reason) cannot take advantage of discounted advance fares be expected to pay more, simply to fund those that can? The FAC Chairs want the price cap mechanism on ferry fares to exclude any discounted fares, so that it’s the average fare available to “turn-up-and-go” travellers (still the majority of ferry users) that’s regulated by the price cap.

Hodgkins believes there should be more than enough scope for BC Ferries to fund the new discounted fares by attracting more business onto the major routes.  “There has to be an incentive on BC Ferries to grow the market,  without expecting ferry users on Gabriola and elsewhere to pick up the tab until they do” he says.  He also supports the call for a new body to represent the interests of ferry users on the major routes. “80% of BC Ferries’ passengers travel on the four major routes, but only one of those routes (Horseshoe Bay to Langdale) is currently served by a Ferry Advisory Committee.”  FAC Chairs are seeking the Ferry Commissioner’s support to the establishment of a consumer body to represent ferry users on the other three mainland routes.

The full text of the FAC Chairs’ submission to the Ferry Commissioner  can be found here

BC Ferries submits a quarterly report to the Ferry Commissioner comparing the average fare charged with the permitted Price Cap.  If the average fare exceeds the Price Cap for three consecutive quarters, the excess income must be returned to ferry users through adjustments to fares or other means.

A quarterly Complaints Resolution report is also submitted to the Ferry Commissioner. In the report for the 3 months to September, 2014, ferry fares attracted the highest number of complaints. The operation of the ferry reservation system attracted the fifth highest number of complaints.

FAC completes its review of ferry schedules

The Ferry Advisory Committee has now completed the analysis of its recent survey to establish the community’s views on a range of alternative schedule options, and has presented its findings to BC Ferries.

Click on the following links to download full copies of the Survey report (which includes a review of potential community impacts) together with the Appendices which contain almost 1,000 comments submitted as part of the survey.

As a result of our findings, we concluded that:

The responses indicate that the community slightly favours the service offered by Option 1, but the difference between the preference afforded to the three options is marginal.

Since the service offered by Option 3 is, in large part, similar to that offered by Option 1, the majority (almost two-thirds) of respondents to our survey preferred one of these options over the adoption of Option 2. [Option 2 was the only one of the three options in which the first morning departure from Gabriola remained at 5:30 am on weekdays].

Although not offered as an option, some people have indicated they would prefer to stay with the present schedule.

The response from the community indicates that there would be a broad level of public support for measures that will:

  • Improve the on-time performance of the ferry service;
  • Reduce the number of overloads occurring on Gabriola during the daytime;
  • Achieve a more consistent ferry schedule with fewer daily or seasonal variations;
  • Remove the gaps in service during the mid-morning and early afternoon;
  • Reduce overloads on ferries leaving Nanaimo through the afternoon peak;
  • Minimise any additional travelling time for students attending Nanaimo schools;
  • Reduce the mid-evening gap in ferry services leaving Nanaimo, especially on Wednesdays;
  • Maintain a daily late ferry leaving Nanaimo around 11pm.

The achievement of these objectives would, however, have the potential to impact on a number of Gabriola residents, especially those whose work patterns:

  • Require them to arrive in Nanaimo before 7am on weekdays; or
  • Require them to travel home from Nanaimo after a day shift ending at 7:30pm.

Any change to early morning ferry schedules would also impact on opportunities for onward ferry travel to Vancouver on weekdays.

The case for linking the Gabriola ferry schedule to prioritise connections with ferries to and from the Lower Mainland offers no guarantee that services to and from the mainland will be maintained at existing times through 2015 and beyond.

In the light of experience during the summer of 2014, the 10-week peak enhancement to the summer ferry schedule does not adequately address the increased demand for ferry travel to & from Gabriola during the early and late summer months and any seasonal enhancement should, in future, operate for at least 26 weeks a year.

The schedule implemented in April 2014 has been a contributory factor to a decline in vehicle and passenger traffic on Route 19 at a greater rate than has been experienced on similar ferry routes elsewhere on the coast.

The April 2014 ferry schedule has also resulted in a deterioration of on-time performance, especially during the summer months, which must be addressed before Summer 2015.

We believe the schedule implemented in April 2014 is unlikely to have achieved the performance targets set by government and this has increased the risk of further service reductions being imposed on Route 19 within the next 2 years.

Despite the challenges presented by the retiming of the first departure from Gabriola, there are sound arguments in favour of adjusting the ferry schedule to align with Option 1 of the recently suggested alternatives.

It is our strong preference that the implementation of any schedule change should be delayed until March or April 2015 to allow as much time as possible for those who will be most affected to prepare for the changes.

Any schedule changes that are to be made should be made known to the travelling public at the earliest opportunity, together with a definitive date on which the proposed changes are to come into effect.

The Ferry Advisory Committee acknowledges that:

Responsibility for the final determination of the ferry schedule lies with BC Ferries and not with the FAC, however we ask that BC Ferries take account of the views expressed by the community before any change to the schedule is proposed.

Changes to the ferry schedule may result in serious disruption to some Gabriolans. We will continue to work with BC Ferries to achieve a schedule that reflects the needs of ferry users and that supports the economy and health of the community.

Once we have details of BC Ferries’ proposed schedule, they will be posted on this website.

The FAC will continue to work with BC Ferries to monitor the effects of any change in ferry schedules and maintain a dialogue through 2015 and beyond to minimise, where possible, any adverse effects on Gabriola residents.

We are grateful to all of the residents and businesses of Gabriola that contributed to this review by responding to the survey and commenting in other ways. We would also like to thank Steven Earle (Chair of the Islands Trust’s Transportation Advisory Commission on Gabriola) for his valued input to this review.

We welcome further feedback from the community.

Opinions range on changes to ferry schedule

The FAC’s survey aimed at gauging reaction to a range of alternative schedule options closed on October 31 with a total of 590 responses.  Almost 1,000 narrative comments were received explaining why individuals preferred one option over another, or the problems that would be caused to them if one or other option was implemented. We have spent some considerable time analysing the responses and are now drafting a report from the FAC to BC Ferries.

The headline results indicate that the highest proportion of respondents (36%) expressed a preference for Option 1; 31% for Option 2 and 28% for Option 3.  5% of respondents indicated that they preferred to keep the existing schedule than have any of the three options imposed.  We acknowledge that as we didn’t include a ‘do nothing’ option among the alternatives presented to the community, we have no accurate data to show how strong the preference for maintaining the status quo really is.

We are now working through the narrative responses to review the reasons cited as benefits or problems associated with each of the alternative schedule options and we will be using that information to evaluate whether there is a preferred course of action that the FAC can support. We have asked BC Ferries for further information to assist us in that process.

It’s important to recognise that this consultation was initiated by the Ferry Advisory Committee and not by BC Ferries. Since the government forced service cuts in April, vehicle traffic on our ferry route has fallen by 5.5% and passenger traffic by almost 4%. That’s not all down to the service cuts, of course, as rising fares and the imposition of a half fare for BC Seniors have both had an impact as well. But that’s the case on every ferry route – and we do know that on similar routes where there hasn’t been a service cut, traffic has only dropped by about 1%.

We all know that the ferry service this summer has suffered from poor reliability and many more overloads. What is not clear is whether, after taking lost revenue into account,  the reduction in costs achieved on Route 19 has delivered the net financial savings that were required by government. Further changes made to the ferry schedule in September have addressed some of the reliability problems, but they were only a partial fix. If the net savings are not achieved, then we can expect more cuts to be imposed by government – and the FAC’s intervention sought to ensure that the potential impact on the community would fully understood before any further corrective action was proposed.

The FAC aims to issue a full report on the findings of the survey within the next two weeks.  There is no doubt that whatever changes are made, there will be some people who will benefit and some who will be disadvantaged. If the FAC is to endorse any of the options, then we need to be certain that the wider benefit to the community outweighs the impact on any particular group of people. If that certainty isn’t there, then we will not be making a specific recommendation.

We acknowledge that responsibility for the final determination of the ferry schedule lies with BC Ferries and not with the Ferry Advisory Committee, however we will continue to press for an outcome that we believe will be most acceptable to the community

John Hodgkins
FAC Chair

Are you clear what Todd Stone said about ferries this week?

Over the past few days the media has pounced on the Transportation Minister’s about turn on cutting ferries on the Departure Bay – Horseshoe Bay route (one of a number of potential cost saving measures identified in BC Ferries’ submission to the BC Ferry Commission on September 30.)  But are we clear what he really is saying?

These are the key messages from the Minister’s media conference call this week. You can listen to the whole exchange here on the BC government website.

On the subject of Route 2 between Horseshoe Bay and Departure Bay…

  •  There is no appetite within government to see BC Ferries cancel that run.
  •  It is very important for BC Ferries to explore all options that may enable the corporation to whittle down to some degree the ¼ billion dollars of upgrades at Horseshoe Bay.
  •  That could come about through the use of different vessels serving the Departure Bay-Horseshoe Bay route. We’ll see what ideas and options BC Ferries is able to come up with. 

On suggestions to run a passenger only ferry

  •  This government has no interest in supporting or encouraging BC Ferries to launch a passenger only service from Nanaimo to the Lower Mainland.

Are you saying there will be no changes on the Departure Bay/Horseshoe Bay run? Will there be any reduction in service in the future?

  • We’re going to make sure, working with BC Ferries, that the service levels that are required to meet the needs of the people of Nanaimo and the mid island, and folks on the lower mainland side, that those needs are met. At this point no recommendations from BC Ferries have been put on my desk.

 Talking about the two main ferry terminals in Nanaimo:

  • BC government has determined that this is not an issue that we would like to push through at this time. I have decided on behalf of government to officially rule out any consolidation of the two terminals in Nanaimo.

 Describing some of the other cost saving measures that are still on the table: 

  • There are other revenue saving opportunities we’re exploring. Were doing a feasibility study into the potential for a fixed link to Gabriola Island. That could very well come back demonstrating the potential for cost savings.

 Summing up in response to further questions….

  •  There will continue to be two terminals in Nanaimo; there will continue to be a ferry service – a vehicle ferry service – from Horseshoe Bay to Departure Bay and there will not be a passenger service – a BC Ferries passenger service – from Nanaimo to the lower mainland.

So that’s all clear then. Unless he changes his mind.