Ferry Fares capped at 1.9% from 2016

The BC Ferry Commissioner today set the “preliminary price cap” of a 1.9% increase on ferry fares for each of the four years 2016-2019, challenging BC Ferries to find further productivity improvements of $27.6 million by the end of the four-year Performance Term.

So what does this “preliminary price cap” mean?

Ahead of each new performance term, BC Ferries must submit forecasts of expenditure, traffic and revenue to the BC Ferry Commission, assuming existing service levels will be maintained. This information was provided by BC Ferries in December 2014, though most of the financial detail was excluded from the submission before publication.

The Ferry Commissioner’s task is to review those forecasts, making adjustments as necessary, before calculating a “preliminary price cap” that assumes government support continues at existing levels. Following a period of public consultation, government will then consider whether further action is necessary to close the gap between expenditure and anticipated fares income. Any adjustments are then taken into account before a Final Price Cap is announced by the Ferry Commission in September.

The 1.9% preliminary price cap announced today signals a welcome move towards the Transportation Minister’s commitment to achieve annual price cap increases in line with inflation. Latest CPI statistics show annual inflation close to 1.1% in BC, following the recent fall in fuel prices, so there’s still some way to go.

The Ferry Commissioner’s full statement can be downloaded here.

April 1 ferry schedule should improve reliability, reduce emissions

We’re less than three weeks away from the start of our new ferry schedule – and although not all of the changes are positive, one of the benefits of the new schedule should be a dramatic reduction in the number of late ferry sailings compared to last summer.

For much of the day, an extra 5 minutes has been added between sailings to help ensure on-time departures. Coupled with the extra daytime ferries, this should help reduce delays and overloads at busy times.

When traffic is lighter (especially at weekends) the new schedule will also help save fuel and reduce greenhouse gas emissions by avoiding the need for Quinsam to constantly sail at maximum speed to stay on time. That’s good for the environment as well as contributing to lower fuel costs.

Most times, Quinsam completes the crossing (dock to dock) in 20-22 minutes. That’s still going to be the case for much of the day, but if the captain determines that there’s time to do so, he (or she) may reduce speed a little to save fuel. This happens already to some extent, but now it’s official. BC Ferries will likely be updating their website to show crossing times of 20-25 minutes sometime soon.


Membership of new FAC is confirmed

Gabriola’s new Ferry Advisory Committee for 2015-2018 has been strengthened from four members to nine – reflecting a much wider cross-section of community interests.

The following appointments have been confirmed by BC Ferries today:

Returning FAC members:

  • John Hodgkins (previously FAC Chair)
  • Chris Hock (Gabriola Chamber of Commerce)

New FAC members:

  • Steven Earle (Transportation Advisory Commission and GERTIE)
  • Howard Houle (RDN Director)
  • Heather Nicholas (Islands Trustee)
  • David Prevost (School District 68)
  • Jim Ramsay (Gabriola Transportation Association)
  • Jim Wilson-Storey (Gabriola Arts Council)
  • Jane McCall Woods (Commuter representative)

John Hodgkins, Chair of the previous FAC, welcomed the new appointments, which he believes will build on the strengths of the previous committee and ensure the FAC is better able to represent the needs of the community.

More information about the new FAC can be found at   http://gabriolafac.com/about-the-fac/

New ferry schedule announced for April 1

There’s good news for most, though not all, ferry users in our new ferry schedule announced today by BC Ferries for introduction on April 1.

In response to the community’s stated preferences, BC Ferries will introduce a revised service pattern, based on the preferred Option 1, with the first departure from Gabriola moving to 6:15am and the last ferry leaving Nanaimo at 11pm each day. (click on the schedule below for a printable copy)

Schedule for publicationThe main features of the new schedule are:

  • The 5:30 am and 6:30 am departures from Gabriola are combined at 6:15am every day
  • Student ferry times both move forward by 5 minutes (to 7:35 am and 3:45 pm)
  • Daytime ferries will run at 75 minute intervals throughout the day, with no gaps in service on weekdays
  • Departure times will apply every day, year round, making the schedule easier to remember
  • Re-introduced mid afternoon sailings on weekdays to reduce peak hour overloads in Nanaimo
  • The mid-evening ferry will leave Nanaimo at 9pm (not 8:20) allowing greater flexibility for after-school and sporting activities
  • Evening ferries will leave Nanaimo at 9pm daily, 10pm (except Wednesdays) and 11pm daily.
  • Last ferry will leave Gabriola at 10:30pm every night, except Wednesdays (9:30pm)

Unfortunately, there will no longer be a departure from Gabriola at 5:30am on weekdays, meaning the earliest connections to Vancouver will be the 7:45am sailing from Duke Point or 8:30am from Departure Bay.

In its feedback to BC Ferries following the survey, the FAC reluctantly accepted that the only way they were going to overcome the long gaps in the daytime service, the frequent service delays and excessive overloads would be to move the start and finish times of either the early shift or the late shift and to allow extra turn-round time between departures at the busiest times of day. This would either require the first ferry to run later, or the last ferry to run earlier each day. Two-thirds of the ferry users who responded to the survey told us that the late evening ferries should be prioritised.

In an ideal world, of course, the FAC would prefer to go back to the schedule we had before April 2014; unfortunately the cuts imposed by the Provincial government will not be reversed; the reduced number of sailings (and the savings in labour and fuel costs that went along with that) still apply and BC Ferries must still achieve the government’s financial targets. It’s very obvious, though, that the decision to reduce midday services last April has had a significant impact on ferry use, resulting in traffic and revenue dropping by about 5% – putting our ferry service at risk of yet more cuts in the years ahead. In 2013 (before the cuts were imposed) more than 65% of vehicles and 60% of passengers taking the ferry from Gabriola did so between 8.30am and 3.30pm. Both government and BC Ferries assumed that ferry users would change their travel plans and travel at different times – but, as we’ve seen, it hasn’t worked out that way. The fact that our daytime ferries were already full for much of the year has meant that many people simply aren’t travelling as often. Hopefully this improved daytime service will go some way to recovering lost business and minimise the likelihood of further cuts.

The final choice of a ferry schedule for 2015 would always be in the hands of BC Ferries, but it was at the FAC’s instigation that the company provided three alternative options for community feedback last October. In its report, the ferry advisory committee acknowledged that while Option 1 was the community’s preferred option, the retiming of early morning and mid-evening services would seriously affect some shift workers, especially those who start work before 7am and have, until now, relied on the 5:30am ferry.  In our discussions with BC Ferries we made it clear that this could result in some people no longer being able to both continue in their present job and live on Gabriola. We therefore asked BC Ferries to provide as much advance notice as possible to help those most affected to prepare for any change.

BC Ferries’ media release announcing the new schedule can be downloaded here.

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.