Cold December hits ferry traffic

After a year of almost continuous growth in ferry traffic, 2016 came to a bitterly cold end, resulting in fewer trips being made on our ferry than in December 2015. Passenger numbers were down in December by 4.4%, and vehicle traffic down by 1.5%. A similar pattern was seen across most BC Ferries routes, including the major route from Departure Bay to Horseshoe Bay. One route bucking the trend however is Route 30 (Duke Point to Tsawwassen) which saw vehicle traffic rise by 10% in December, and passenger traffic up by 12%.

Despite this sting in the tail, 2016, ferry traffic to and from Gabriola during 2016 increased overall by 3.4% (vehicles) and 1.25% (passengers) compared to 2015 – and, at last, traffic has returned to the levels we were seeing before the ferry cuts of April 2014 – albeit we now have two less sailings each day.

Explaining the traffic growth in 2016 is relatively easy.  Continuing low fuel prices for most of the year encouraged domestic travel, and tourist from overseas rose by 12% in 2016. Not to mention the one extra day (February 29) which on on its own contributed 0.25% to the annual growth.  Forecasting 2017 may be more challenging, especially if rising fuel prices bring the present 2.9% fare rebate to an end.

Gabriola FAC monitors ferry traffic by calendar year, whereas BC Ferries reports annually based on the fiscal year (April to March), resulting in annual fluctuations created by an early or late Easter. The fiscal year to March 2017 included no Easter holiday, whereas this Easter falls in April and Easter break 2018 will span two fiscal years. By comparing calendar years, this distortion is avoided.  See our Route 19 Performance page for details.

BC Ferries explains why they have changed how vessel capacity is measured

In response to our Quinsam Shrinks article,  BC Ferries has offered clarification on some of the questions asked. Here’s what Mark Collins, Vice President (Strategic Planning and Community Engagement) had to say in response to our statements:

FAC: The AEQ is a measure of deck space which was deemed to be the equivalent of one car length. The value of this calculation was that it enables BC Ferries to report accurately on what percentage of each route’s vehicle capacity was actually being used.

BCF: In fact the calculation you refer as “…accurately…” had a flaw.  With this change we have corrected it.  

FAC: Cars have got smaller over the years and it’s not at all unusual for Quinsam to carry 75 or more vehicles on busier sailings

BCF: We don’t have any data which suggests the average car size has gotten smaller.  Our information suggests the opposite, that the average size of vehicles has grown. 

FAC: Quinsam’s capacity has dropped from 70 AEQ’s to just 63.

BCF: Sorry but this is not an accurate statement.  The Quinsam’s capacity did not change; the deck area is exactly the same before and after the change.  All that has changed is the unit of measure of deck area.  Rather like measuring a house today in sq ft and tomorrow in sq meters, the house is still the same size. There is no intention to reduce numbers allowed on board.  Nothing has changed except how the area of the deck is measured.

FAC: An AEQ has been recalculated as 6.1 metres (20 feet) – which happens to be the maximum length of vehicle that can travel at the standard fare, but that’s where the logic seems to end.

BCF: 6.1 m AEQ is used in more places than just the standard fare determination.  In fact, the old 5.3m AEQ was a primary measure in a single place in our systems: the measurement of ship deck space.  There are many other places in our system that all use 6.1 m AEQ.  Terminal holding compounds for example, are measured with 6.1 m AEQ and have been for decades.  The old measure of deck space using 5.3m was the exception, not the rule. BCF should have fixed this years ago but didn’t because it didn’t want lose comparability with past data.  So we allowed two different measures of the same quantity/parameter to perpetuate.  

What about backwards comparability?  To allow backward comparability one or more previous years traffic data will be re-stated using 6.1m AEQ in our reports.  We will adjust other reports on an as needed basis.

 Why harmonize on the 6.1m AEQ and not the 5.3?   Since: (1) the majority of our systems are already based on 6.1m AEQ, and (2) since 6.1m is a more accurate reflection of the reality of today’s vehicles, harmonizing on the 6.1m AEQ required the fewest changes, least disruption and provided the greatest efficency gain.  It also gives is capacity numbers which most closely match customer’s experience.

FAC: Quinsam will continue to carry 75 or more vehicles at busy times, so the new measure seems, well, meaningless.

BCF: Meaningless to some maybe but not meaningless to us and certainly not to people who wish to see good ferry system performance.  In our view this more accurately reflects the proportion of space used since the 6.1m AEQ is closer to the average size vehicle we actually carry.  Most of our fleet routinely carries below the old stated AEQ capacity.  This changes beings our standard capacities more in line with reality, not further away.

FAC: What’s worse is that it now means vehicle utilization statistics reported to government are suddenly 10% higher than they were before. There’s an explanation that an AEQ is now longer, but no explanation why.  

BCF: we trust the “why” is now satisfactorily explained above.

FAC: To the casual observer (or as a message to a new government) it’s great news of course. Our ferry (which was targeted for cuts in 2013 because it only achieved 45% utilisation) has now averaged 58% over the past year – peaking at 66% in summer 2016.

BCF: We trust the above explanation makes clear the lack of foundation for the “message” insinuation.

FAC: Not really. Applying the formula used in 2013, it has increased from 45% to 52% in the past year – and this summer vehicle utilisation was up by 2% from last year to 59%, not 66%. Vehicle utilisation is increasing, but why change the formula now?

BCF: There is no good time to make a change of this type.  But it still had to be done to correct the issues above.  Why now?  (1) Accurate specifications were needed in Fall 2016 for the new Minor 44 vessel (as they will be for the many other new vessel and terminal projects coming), and (2) Accurate, realistic measures of deck space are required for the new point of sale and reservation systems we are presently building. Finally, the measure is not a vehicle limit.  It is measure of standard capacity. 

Chair’s comment –

I’m grateful to BC Ferries for supplying this explanation.

So it seems the new measure is here to stay. It does not affect the number of vehicles carried – and, in the eyes of BC Ferries at least, it more accurately represents reality, as well as providing solace to “people who wish to see good ferry system performance” (presumably meaning  government).

But, as a formula, does the new methodology really give a more accurate reflection of capacity utilisation?  I’m not so sure. A ferry with 70 cars on it used to be recorded as full. Now, with a notional capacity of 63, 7 of the cars on that ferry will be counted as “over capacity”. The daily total may not change, but it must surely distort the reported utilisation measure?

Quinsam shrinks – but how, when and why?

For as long as most of us can remember, the Quinsam had capacity for 70 vehicles – or, as BC Ferries refers to them, 70 AEQs (automobile equivalents).  The AEQ was, quite simply, a measure of deck space – notionally 5.3 metres – which was deemed to be the equivalent of one car length. When commercial vehicles and buses used the ferry, they would be counted as multiples of 1 AEQ, on the basis that a large semi-truck would occupy the space of 3 cars,  a bus the space of 2 – and so on. The value of this calculation was that it enabled BC Ferries to report accurately on what percentage of each route’s vehicle capacity was actually being used.

In reality, of course, cars have got smaller over the years and it’s not at all unusual for Quinsam to carry 75 or more vehicles on busier sailings – up to 80 automobile equivalents.

Now, for reasons best known to BC Ferries, Quinsam’s capacity has dropped from 70 AEQ’s to just 63.  We’re told that’s because an AEQ has been recalculated as 6.1 metres (20 feet) – which happens to be the maximum length of vehicle that can travel at the standard fare, but that’s where the logic seems to end.  Quinsam will continue to carry 75 or more vehicles at busy times, so the new measure seems, well, meaningless.

What’s worse is that it now means vehicle utilisation statistics reported to government are suddenly 10% higher than they were before. In the 3 months from July to September 2016, BC Ferries reported that our ferry operated at almost 66% of available capacity – when last summer the reported figure was just 57%. Sure, there’s an explanation that an AEQ is now longer, but no explanation why.  

To the casual observer (or as a message to a new government) it’s great news of course. Our ferry (which was targeted for cuts in 2013 because it only achieved 45% utilisation) has now averaged 58% over the past year – peaking at 66% in summer 2016.

No, it hasn’t.

Applying the formula used in 2013, it has increased from 45% to 52% in the past year – and this summer vehicle utilisation was up by 2% from last year to 59%, not 66%. So Quinsam hasn’t shrunk after all, and there’s no suggestion that fewer vehicles are being allowed on.  Vehicle utilisation is increasing, that’s plain for anyone to see, but why change the formula now?

Maybe BC Ferries can explain the logic.

Meanwhile, here is a graph showing the vehicle utilisation each quarter since 2013 – using the formula that has served everyone well since forever. To enable this comparison to be maintained, the FAC will continue to apply the “old” AEQ formula during 2017.

Percentage of vehicle capacity utilised each quarter – Route 19 (based on Quinsam’s 70 AEQ capacity)

utilisation

End of Year Report from the Chair

Signs of improvement – but could do better

FAC Chair John  Hodgkins takes a look back at 2016 and finds signs of improvement on Gabriola’s ferry service

By the end of 2016,  vehicle traffic on the Gabriola ferry route will have increased almost 4% over 2015, and passenger traffic will be up nearly 2%.

BC Ferries will tell us it’s down to a weak Canadian dollar attracting more visitors from south of the border, and more Canadians taking their vacations at home – and to some degree it is, but what do these figures actually mean for Gabriolans facing ever longer line-ups for our ferry?

The big picture

BC Ferries data isn’t always straightforward when it comes to comparing like with like (no surprise there then, I hear you say).  The corporation reports by fiscal year (FY) ending in March, which means some years include one Easter holiday, some (like FYs 2008, 2013 and 2016) have two – and typically the following year will have none at all. For that reason, the FAC usually monitors ferry traffic by calendar year to iron out the “Easter effect”.

Another complexity is BC Ferries’ method of counting vehicles. Each month they publish actual vehicle numbers (counting every vehicle as 1, irrespective of size). By the time the annual reports are published, vehicle numbers have been converted to AEQs (automobile equivalents) where commercial vehicles and buses count as 2 or 3 AEQs, depending on size. So, at the year end, the reported numbers using Route 19 are inflated by around 5.5% once they are expressed as AEQs. Simple, or what?

So let’s take a look at how 2016 (and, from what we are seeing, the remainder of this fiscal year to March 2017) actually compares to previous years.   Continue reading

Traffic and safety concerns raised once more

Gabriola Ferry Advisory Committee is deeply concerned about safety on the roadways immediately around the ferry terminal at Descanso Bay and in the area of the traffic queue along Taylor Bay Road, where dangerous and illegal manoeuvers are common amongst those wanting to ensure their position in the line-up. The situation is even more hazardous at present because of slippery surfaces and busy holiday traffic.

In August 2015 the FAC wrote to the Ministry of Transportation and Infrastructure pointing out the danger to pedestrians and cyclists at the terminal itself. Without even a crosswalk for pedestrians, the situation at the terminal is extremely dangerous, especially when the ferry is loading and unloading and the traffic level is intense and chaotic. Our request for a study of traffic safety was supported by the Gabriola Local Trust Committee, the Gabriola Transportation Advisory Commission, the Regional District of Nanaimo, School District 68 and the Gabriola Island RCMP but so far, nothing has been done by the Ministry of Transportation and Infrastructure (MoTI).

In September of 2016 the FAC wrote again to MoTI, emphasizing the very dangerous situation on Taylor Bay Road stating that: “Summer 2016 has seen further growth in ferry traffic, with long queues most days along Taylor Bay Road. Increasing numbers of drivers are making U-turns on Taylor Bay Road, leading to at least one accident and several near-misses. RCMP officers have cautioned or ticketed drivers making dangerous and illegal U-turns on the highway.” The Ministry was asked to consider a number of different options for re-routing the line-up, but to date has not responded to our request.

The issue of road safety was also a major part of the FAC’s meeting with BC Ferries in November 2016, where the FAC put forward a proposal to re-route the ferry line-up from narrow and curvy Taylor Bay Road where about 80% of drivers are forced to make a U-turn to join the queue, to North Road.

It’s not just the FAC that is concerned about safety around the ferry terminal. Gabriola residents are taking to social media once more since the winter weather arrived, concerned about drivers ignoring traffic signs, making illegal u-turns and blocking the traffic lane by parking across Mallett Creek bridge.

The FAC is calling on BC Ferries and the Ministry of Transportation and Infrastructure to take immediate action to resolve the traffic safety issues around the ferry terminal on Gabriola, and to make our roads safer for pedestrians, cyclists and motorists.

FAC meeting with BC Ferries this Friday

Gabriola FAC members will be meeting with BC Ferries management this Friday (November 18) in the Agricultural Hall, South Road, starting at 9am.  The agenda for this meeting can be found here

Members of the public are welcome to attend, but please keep in mind that this is not an open-house meeting, so if you wish to speak on any topic please email us with the topic on which you would like to speak before the meeting at gabriola.fac@gmail.com, or speak to the Vice-Chair, Steven Earle, before the start of the meeting.

 

Busiest summer on our ferry since 2010

September’s traffic statistics published recently by BC Ferries show that vehicle traffic was 5.2% up on September 2015 and passenger traffic up 4.2% – confirming that summer 2016 has been the busiest for ferry traffic since 2010, and explaining why our ferry line-ups have been exceptional this year.

Between June and September, more than 129,000 vehicles were carried this year – 5,000 more than last summer, and 8,000 more than Summer 2014, the year following our ferry cuts. The last time our summer ferry traffic was busier was 2010, when nearly 135,000 vehicles were recorded.  Since 2010, ferry traffic has been in steady decline due to the combined effect of high fares and a weakened economy.

Passenger numbers have followed a similar trend – with over 292,000 passengers carried between June and September – up by 5,000 from last year and a massive 15,000 more than Summer 2014 – and the highest since 2010, when 306,000 passengers travelled.

At first sight, this is great news for the longer term sustainability of our ferry service – but we know that traffic on our late evening ferries is stubbornly low and showing little sign of improving. The majority of new traffic appears to be focussed on our daytime ferries – sailings that are already full for much of the year – and in peak summer that simply means longer line-ups and more missed ferries.

Summer 2016 also saw the reinstatement (on a 2-year trial) of the early afternoon weekend sailings during July and August. They appear to have been well used, and will return next year. Once we have detailed traffic numbers from BC Ferries, we aim to provide a detailed appraisal of the impact they have had on weekend traffic.

Monthly traffic statistics can be found on our Route 19 Performance page.