What next for our ferry?

FAC Chair, John Hodgkins, reflects on the next challenge facing BC Ferries and the community.

Back in March, the Ferry Advisory Committee sat round the table with BC Ferries and told them exactly them what the community had told us – if ferry services were to be axed (remember, it was government insisting on that) then we wanted to ensure that our late night service was protected, even if it meant cutting some daytime service instead.

And so it was; BC Ferries agreed to implement an alternative schedule that maintained our late night services but cut out two daytime round trips – reintroducing the long midday service break that existed before 2010, but adding two further breaks (one mid-morning; one mid-evening) to minimise labour costs. We knew this would result in busier daytime ferries – and longer line-ups; BC Ferries acknowledged that the new schedule had less time between departures, so maintaining a reliable service would be more challenging. Nevertheless, this was the schedule option the community had told us they preferred – their “least-worst” option.

So now here we are, three months in, and it’s painfully obvious that the new ferry schedule just isn’t working. Ferries run late almost every day and the line-ups on both sides have increased substantially. Our ferry crews are doing their utmost to squeeze every last car onto the ferry, and that’s making the ferry even later. By 3pm last Thursday, Quinsam was no less than 53 minutes late, after a whole series of overloads on the Gabriola side.

The extra round trip that we told BC Ferries was necessary during the peak summer has relieved some of the overloads on the Gabriola side, but it all came too late to avoid the backlogs of traffic during late May and June. Now we’re into peak summer and the overloads are as bad as ever, despite the extra sailing.  To cap it all, the ferry now has to run faster to maintain its schedule, so it’s consuming even more fuel.

Not surprisingly, BC Ferries’ customers are voting with their feet; vehicle traffic on the Gabriola route was down 8.6% in May and June; passenger traffic down 6%.  It’s early days, of course, but it’s worth noting that over the same period, similar routes that hadn’t suffered a cut in service maintained their traffic volume within 1% of last year’s levels. (That 1% drop was widely predicted following the government’s decision to impose half fare for BC Seniors who had previously travelled free). By the end of June, Gabriola’s ferry cuts had cost the corporation – and the community – at least a 5% loss in traffic and revenue.

There’s no doubt that BC Ferries will be looking long and hard at how to recover that situation. And so will the government. Government’s target of a $400,000 net saving still has to be met, but with fuel consumption up and revenue down, the gap is all too clear. Something has to give – and it looks like our four FAC volunteers could be caught in the hot seat once more.

The FAC has asked BC Ferries for early discussions about any potential schedule change. BC Ferries has assured the FAC that whatever is proposed will be opened up for community input before a decision is made. The FAC’s task is to make sure that happens. Last time the government was in the driving seat; this time it’s BC Ferries – though you can be sure that the Minister will still be there in spirit, pulling the strings.

Next month, BC Ferries must submit a ten year financial plan to the Ferry Commissioner – the first stage of an 18-month process that will ultimately determine the shape of ferry services for the four years starting April 2016. The Ferry Commissioner’s responsibility is to determine the scale of future fare increases and the extent to which further cuts will be necessary to balance the books.

As ever, the pressure is on. The FAC volunteers may be small cogs in a very large wheel, but will continue to fight the community’s corner to protect our ferry service. Hodgkins says “A further squeeze is inevitable, but we’ve seen what’s happened when the daytime service is squeezed”. “Next time we need to be better informed, and be prepared to look for a more creative solution – one that actually works”.

It’s not all plain sailing in Washington

As Gabriolans struggle on with the recently-imposed ferry cuts, we’re often reminded that things are so different at Washington State Ferries.

True, the differences are real enough. But they’re not enjoying the best of times there either. In the past week alone, two Washington State ferries have been pulled from service and the 60-year old ferry “Evergreen State” has been plucked out of mothballs to fill some of the gaps.

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Photo by M L Jacobs for MarineTraffic.com

Earlier this week, the 202-vehicle Jumbo Class ferry WSF Wenatchee limped into drydock in Vancouver under a Canadian flag for urgent repairs to her main sterntubes, which were leaking. The North Vancouver shipyards were the nearest drydock facility available.

On the same day, Wenatchee’s sister ship WSF Tacoma was left drifting in Puget Sound with 138 vehicles and 405 passengers on board after suffering a complete engine failure. She was eventually towed into Bainbridge Island.

The Wenatchee is due to return to service this weekend, but in the meantime, there have been cancellations on several WSF routes and no  service at all on the Sidney, BC – Anacortes run either yesterday or today.

Getting the message across……

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New traffic signs have now been erected on Taylor Bay Road, directing ferry traffic that cannot join the line-up at the regular turn-around point to continue to the junction with Ivory Way (the campground entrance) where the gravel area has now been cleared and levelled to allow U-turns.

IMG_3301There are also signs on the narrow section where Taylor Bay Road crosses Mallett Creek, reminding drivers not to queue along this short section.

The Ferry Advisory Committee welcomes these new signs as an important reminder of how hazardous this length of road can be if drivers make U-turns close to a blind corner.

Now it’s up to Gabriolans to lead by example.

New traffic signs proposed on Taylor Bay Road

Proposals for new traffic signs to improve safety for drivers joining the ferry line-up have been put forward by the Ministry of Transportation and Infrastructure this week. The new signs should be in place within the next few weeks.

The proposals include:

  • A new advisory “U-Turn Route” sign just beyond the existing turning bay
  • An additional “No U-Turn”  sign (ahead of the existing sign) to prevent U-turns on the sharp bends
  • A new “U-Turn Route” sign at Ivory Way junction
  • Clearing and grading the gravel area at the Ivory Way U-Turn point
  • Additional “No parking on Pavement” signs on the narrow section where Taylor Bay Road crosses Mallett Creek.

Click here or on the image below for a full size version.  The FAC welcomes this proposal as the first stage of a safer traffic management plan for ferry traffic on Gabriola and invites feedback from the community on the proposal using the comments box below.

As the busiest time of year approaches, we urge drivers NOT to leave gaps in the ferry line-up – please park close to the vehicle in front of you, so that the line-up stays as short as possible.  We understand that many drivers prefer not to park on the steepest section near the Taylor Bay Road ‘STOP’ sign – that’s fine – but PLEASE don’t leave gaps elsewhere simply so you can park in the sunshine (or shade).

Taylor Bay Road

Summer ferry schedule starts June 25th

The long-awaited extra midday ferry sailings start next Wednesday (June 25) and run through the summer until Friday, September 5.

The revised schedule affects Mondays to Fridays only, with no change to the present schedule on Saturdays or Sundays.

Ferries leaving Gabriola up to 9.50am and from 3.15pm (Monday through Friday)  run at the same times, but after the 9.50am departure, there will then be sailings at 11.00am, 12.10pm and 1.20pm in place of the usual 11.40am and 12.50pm departures.

From Nanaimo,  departures up to 9.15am are unchanged, after which ferries will leave at 10.25am, 11.35am, 12.45pm and 1.55pm (replacing the usual 11.05am, 12.15pm and 1.25pm sailings). The normal schedule resumes with the 3.50pm departure from Nanaimo. On Wednesdays, the 11.35am departure becomes the Dangerous Cargo sailing.

The extra summer sailings were added at the request of the Ferry Advisory Committee.

FAC Chair, John Hodgkins, still expects there to be some overloads during the summer months, particularly on Thursdays and around holiday weekends.

 

 

 

Traffic down 10% in May following service cuts

BC Ferries’ latest traffic statistics published today reveal a massive 10.5% reduction in vehicle traffic on the Gabriola route compared to the same month last year. That’s one of the biggest traffic losses on any gulf island route. Passenger traffic during May fell by more than 7%.

It’s early days, of course,  but the 4% fare increase in April, the new charges for seniors’ travel and the cuts in service on April 28th have all hit home in May, leading to lowest May traffic levels on Route 19 for many years. At the same time, we’re seeing overloads on a scale we haven’t witnessed this early in the year.

The FAC has already asked BC Ferries for an urgent review of the new schedule. Vehicle and passenger statistics for May can be found on our Recent Performance page.

FAC meets with BC Ferries to develop new workplan

This morning’s Ferry Advisory Committee meeting with BC Ferries set out to tackle some of the challenges presented by the new ferry schedule – and finished up creating a whole new workplan for FAC members to pursue with BC Ferries ‘ local managers.

The FAC is pleased to welcome Chris Hock as a new member for the remainder of the current FAC term. Chris was nominated recently by the Gabriola Island Chamber of Commerce to represent the Chamber on the committee, filling a vacancy created when Roger Perry moved from the island.

The first part of  the meeting reflected on how the recent schedule change was affecting islanders – and although the new schedule itself continues to meet the majority of travel needs, it’s evident that the FAC’s predictions of more frequent overloads, longer line-ups and a drop in service reliability are all starting to impact on ferry users.

Traffic conditions on Taylor Bay Road are also a major concern with an ever increasing urge for drivers to make illegal U-turns in order to grab a space in the ferry line-up.  As one contributor said, the greater pressure on daytime ferries seems to have created a sense of panic among drivers in their last-minute dash to ensure a place on the ferry. U-turns are being made in several locations where visibility of oncoming traffic is less than 5 seconds, creating significant safety hazards.

BC Ferries has promised to work with the FAC, Ministry of Transportation and local governments to come up with a traffic management plan for the Gabriola ferry line-up.

Several ongoing projects have been identified for referral to a new local liaison group comprising FAC members, BCF local managers and crew representatives. Top of the list will be the monitoring of ferry performance through the summer and the development of options to  address some of the problems identified with the present service.  The group will also contribute to the traffic management plan for the ferry line-up and investigate the potential to allow priority boarding for people travelling for time-sensitive medical treatments.

One further task will be a review of parking arrangements at Descanso Bay to identify options for the future use of any crew parking spaces that are no longer needed by BC Ferries. An element of this study will be to consider whether parking facilities for the Gabriola community bus (GERTIE) can be improved.

The present FAC term comes to an end this year and many of us believe that the value gained from the broader ferry working group established last year to review the government’s ferry cuts points to the need for a larger, more representative Ferry Advisory Committee next year, including nominees from both the RDN and Islands Trust. The major challenge will remain to get the Provincial government to the table and – as Sheila Malcolmson rightly said – finally get Ministers to look ferry users in the eyes, as they once promised to do.