Year of scrutiny ahead for BC Ferries

Ferry Advisory Committee Chairs attended a series of meetings this week with government officials, the BC Ferry Commissioners and BC Ferries executives to review recent performance and to gain a clearer picture of the steps that are necessary in the lead up to BC Ferries’ Performance Term 4 (PT4) which will run from April 2016 to March 2020.  Gabriola FAC Chair John Hodgkins was there.

On Friday, the release of BC Ferries’ first quarter results coincided with the corporation’s Annual General Meeting, which reported the lowest traffic levels on the coastal ferry system for 23 years – and underlying the $13 million increase in revenues to BC Ferries, the worrying reality that the decline in ridership continues.

At a time when neighbouring Washington State Ferries is reporting an upturn in ridership during the first quarter (+3.4% in passenger traffic; +1.4% vehicle traffic), traffic on BC Ferries routes has continued to decline by almost 0.5% across the board. The decline on some minor routes has been significantly more – especially those routes (such as our own) which suffered significant service cuts.

Looking Back

Inevitably, there is much focus on the impact of the service cuts imposed by government on April 28 to close the funding gap in the current performance term (PT3).  Many of those cuts were modified by BC Ferries to address local concerns and clearly the Gabriola route is not the only one that is going to need some corrective action to deal with unreliability and overloading. The priority though, say BC Ferries, is to ensure that there is adequate time to consult with local communities (via the FACs) before any further changes are made.

At the start of PT3, the Ferry Commissioner set targets for BC Ferries to find $54 million in efficiency savings in addition to the service cuts that have already been made on the minor routes and the $4.9m in savings that have yet to be found from the major routes. BC Ferries is “on track to meet and potentially exceed” the combined $84m target, which should reduce the pressure for higher fare increases or service cuts in PT4.

Deputy Assistant Minister Deborah Bowman, who recently took over responsibility for coastal ferry services from Kevin Richter, acknowledged that “lessons were learned” from the recent community engagement process but she signalled that the government’s approach to ferry services was unlikely to change significantly in the next performance term.

Performance Term 4

Every four years, BC Ferries has to submit its financial plans to the BC Ferry Commissioner, whose task it is to set the fare cap (the maximum increase that BC Ferries can apply to the average fares paid by ferry users). See here for more information on this process.

Ferry Commissioner Gord Macatee described the steps that will be followed in determining the fare cap for PT4.

  • By September 30, 2014 BC Ferries must submit its financial and operational forecasts for 2016-2020 including, for the first time,  a 12-year capital programme covering major projects – primarily vessel and terminal upgrades and vessel replacements. This will be a critical element during PT4 and beyond, as up to 15 of BC Ferries’ fleet will be due for replacement by 2030.
  • During October 2014, the Ferry Commission will publish the BC Ferries submission on its website and invite public comment. Financial consultants PWC will conduct an independent evaluation of BC Ferries’ submissions
  • On March 30, 2015 the Ferry Commissioner is required to publish the Preliminary Fare Cap for 2016-2020.
  • By June 30, 2015, BC Ferries and the government are required to finalise any proposed changes to the Coastal Ferry Services Contract and provide a copy to the Ferry Commissioner.
  • Following input from government and public consultation, the Final Fare Cap will be published on September 30, 2015. 
  • PT4 starts on April 1, 2016.

Performance Reviews

The BC Ferry Commissioner has determined that a number of Performance Reviews of BC Ferries will be conducted in the coming months to inform his evaluation of BC Ferries’ financial forecasts.  The purpose of Performance Reviews is to hold the operator (BC Ferries) accountable, and by doing so raise public confidence that the company is operating efficiently, making prudent use of its resources and operating in such a way as to keep ferry fares as low as reasonably possible. Among the organisations that have requested reviews was the Islands Trust Council

The findings of a recent Performance Review of the progress towards the implementation of BC Ferries’ Automated Customer Experience (ACE) Program can be found here.  The ACE Program is a large, complex – and costly - set of IT initiatives designed to enable BC Ferries to develop new business management capabilities.

We understand that four further Performance Reviews are planned over the coming months. These will examine:

  • The organisational efficiency of BC Ferries , with specific comparisons to Washington State Ferries and others
  • The cost-efficiency of current Homeporting* arrangements at BC Ferries
  • The financial performance of the BC Ferries Vacations business
  • BC Ferries’ Fuel Management strategies

* Homeporting refers to the arrangements made for overnight docking of vessels and the locations from which ferry crews are employed.

In recent years, the report by the BC Comptroller General to government in 2009 found BC Ferries’ operations “to be well managed and reasonably effective” but called for improvements in governance “to ensure strong oversight and accountablily”.  A subsequent investigation commissioned by the BC Ferry Commissioner as part of a Review of the Coastal Ferry Act  in 2012 found that “Among publicly-owned systems, BC Ferries appears to be relatively efficient” following analysis by PWC of similar ferry systems in North America and Europe.

However, there continues to be much concern about the underlying reasons for the high cost of coastal ferry services in British Columbia and the impact that escalating ferry fares have had on island communities and the local economy. At a time when the pressure on ferry fares has never been greater, the Ferry Commissioner’s decision to carry out these Performance Reviews will surely be widely welcomed.

Student transportation arrangements clarified

Information has now been received from School District 68 clarifying the planned transport arrangements for Gabriola students for the early dismissal on Mondays at NDSS next term.

It has been decided that on Mondays, students will remain supervised at NDSS (unless they choose to leave the school) until the regular bus pick up time of 3:10 PM. These changes will be made on the SD68 web site and students will have access to the cafeteria to be able to study or do homework.

Students will return to Gabriola by ferry at the usual time (3:50 pm). On Fridays, students will return on the ferry at 1:50pm from Nanaimo.



Student confusion

The FAC has this week contacted School District officials highlighting the conflicting transport information that is being offered to high school students attending NDSS from September.

According to the SD68 website,  plans for early dismissal on Mondays are still going ahead and students will be bussed to Nanaimo Harbour by 2:25pm.  The earliest ferry they can catch will be the 3:50pm, yet the SD68 bus schedule for Gabriola shows the local school bus picking up from the ferry at 3:05pm.

If we receive clarification, we will publish it here.


FAC explores next steps with BC Ferries

Ferry Advisory Committee members met representatives of BC Ferries earlier this week to share some of the problems that have beset the latest ferry schedule and to explore how (and when) it will be possible to develop a way forward.

Over recent months, ferry users have faced longer line-ups, frequent overloads and delayed ferries.  Such problems always occur in summer, of course, but this year it’s been evident since early May that things  have been worse than usual.

  • Delays happen for a variety of reasons, but research undertaken by the FAC showed that the major cause of unreliability in the new schedule is the inadequate turn-round time for the ferry at either end of the route. Problems start at around 7am and get progressively worse during the morning.  On the busiest days (Tuesdays and Thursdays) unloading and loading can take 20 minutes or more at both ends of the route; the current schedule allows only 15 minutes. Delays are compounded each time there’s an overload as crew members take time to ensure that every last space on the ferry is utilised.
  • Overloads and longer line-ups have always increased in summer, but the mid-morning service break and the loss of the 2:30 pm departure from Nanaimo have both made the situation worse this year.  Even during May, when traffic starts to build for the summer, the balance of capacity to demand was starting to tip – and by the start of the peak summer schedule, the situation was becoming untenable. Line-ups become longer than ever as drivers arrive for the next scheduled sailing before the previous (late running) ferry has departed.

So, what’s to be done?  That’s yet to be worked out, but we have agreed to work jointly with BC Ferries to develop options that we can take to the community before any decisions are made.  BCF is committed to ensuring there’s adequate time for consultation this time around. In a few weeks time, we return to the April 28 schedule, and we need to see how that plays out, especially during September. Nothing will change immediately, but we need to work towards an acceptable solution for 2015.

The challenge will be how to recover the loss of business this year. Will traffic return if the service becomes more reliable? Can that be achieved by simply tweaking the present schedule, or do we need to revisit some of the decisions made following consideration of the government’s planned service cuts last November?  The FAC will be wanting to hear views from ferry users on that.

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.


Photo by M L Jacobs for

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……


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.