Finances balanced, performance improved and customers happier, say BC Ferries

BC Ferries has this week lodged its annual performance reports with the BC Ferries Commissioner, revealing how each route has performed during the 12 months to March, 2016.  Also published are the results of the 2015 customer satisfaction survey, covering a sample of routes including Route 19 to Gabriola.

Route 19 Financial Performance

This time last year, BC Ferries reported an operating deficit (excluding deferred costs) of $242,000 on Route 19. This year, that deficit has been turned round to a $110,000 surplus – achieved primarily through increased fares revenue and reduced capital costs. This modest surplus represents a 1% margin on annual turnover.

Farebox revenue (including social program reimbursement from government) fell just $379,000 short of covering direct operating costs in 2015/16 – compared to the shortfall of $532,000 reported last year (and almost $1.5 million in  the year preceding the service cuts). Expressed another way, the shortfall against direct operating costs is now just $66 for each round trip from Gabriola.

Significant cost and revenue changes from 2014/15 include:

  • Revenue from vehicle fares up by $247,000 (+8.5%)
  • Revenue from passenger fares up by $118,000 (+5.2%)
  • Social Program reimbursements (Seniors, students etc) up by $37,000 (+4.4%)
  • Direct operating costs (labour, fuel, maintenance) up by $249,000 (+3.8%)
  • Financing & Amortisation costs down by $175,000 (-5.6%)
  • Provincial & Federal Support (Service Fees) down by $65,000 (-1.8%)

Route 19 Operational Performance

Operational improvements reported in 2015/16 include:

  • Vehicle traffic up by 3.2% (but still 0.3% down from the year before the service cuts of 2014)
  • Passenger traffic up by 2.6% (up 1.3% from the year before the service cuts)
  • Vehicle capacity utilisation up from 49.6% to 51.7% (the highest reported since 2008)
  • On-time performance up from 90.1% to 95.8% of departures within 10 minutes of scheduled time
  • Percentage of overloaded sailings down from 7.8% to 5.6% ( but still 0.5% more than 2013/14, before the cuts)

Customer Satisfaction

In the year following the service cuts, the proportion of customers expressing satisfaction with the Gabriola ferry service fell dramatically from 84% to just 56%. Following a series of corrective measures agreed between the FAC and BC Ferries, satisfaction levels returned to 81% in 2015 according to the latest independent customer survey.

Before the service cuts, customers from Gabriola reported high levels of satisfaction with the frequency of the ferry schedule with a satisfaction score of 4.0 (out of 5). After the service cuts, that plummeted to just 2.3 out of 5, but following schedule adjustments in April 2015, satisfaction with the service frequency has risen back to 3.2 out of 5.

Asked whether the first ferry is early enough, the satisfaction score fell from 4.3 to 3.6 in 2014 (despite there being no significant change to the time of the first ferry in April 2014) – and has remained at 3.6 in 2015, even though the first ferry from Gabriola now leaves 45 minutes later following the April 2015 schedule adjustments.

In 2013 (when the last ferry left Nanaimo at 11.30pm) passenger satisfaction with the timing of the last ferry also scored 4.0 out of 5. When the last ferry was retimed to 11.05pm, the score fell back to 3.1 in 2014. Since then, despite the last ferry now leaving at 11pm, the satisfaction score rose in 2015 back up to 3.5 out of 5.

Satisfaction with on-time performance has improved significantly from 2.7 out of 5 in 2014 to 3.8 in 2015 – almost back to its pre-cuts level of 3.9 reported in 2013.

Also improved is customers’ perception of their ability to get on to the desired ferry – up from 2.8 out of 5 in 2014 to 3.4 in 2015, reflecting a fall in the number of sailings that are now overloaded. However, customers remain comparatively dissatisfied with their ability to connect with other ferry routes (especially route 2 to and from Departure Bay) with the score rising from 2.7 to just 2.9 in 2015.

A copy of the full annual report from BC Ferries to the BC Ferries Commissioner can be downloaded here.  A summary of performance reports since 2012 can also be found on our Route 19 Performance page on this website.

Snowbirds display affects ferries on August 10

Heads Up! The Snowbirds are back in town on August 10.
This means that Nanaimo Harbour is closed to navigation from 5.30pm until 6.45pm and Quinsam’s schedule will be disrupted.

The ferry schedule for Wednesday August 10 (for one night only) will look like this:

Normal service up to (and including) the 5pm from Nanaimo
5.35pm from Gabriola (Dangerous Cargo) sailing is CANCELLED
6.10pm from Nanaimo is CANCELLED
6.40pm from Gabriola will operate as normal
7.15pm from Nanaimo will operate as normal
8.25pm from Gabriola will carry Dangerous Cargo ONLY
9pm from Nanaimo will operate as normal
9.30pm from Gabriola will operate as normal
10pm from Nanaimo – EXTRA SAILING
10.30pm from Gabriola – EXTRA SAILING
11pm from Nanaimo will operate as normal.

Traffic management in the ferry line-up on Gabriola

In April 2014, Ministry of Transportation & Infrastructure imposed cuts to our ferry service which, in summer 2014, resulted in almost a 50% increase in the number of overloaded departures from Gabriola. The immediate impact was a very significant increase in traffic lining up beyond the recognised turning point on Taylor Bay Road and an incremental increase in the number of drivers attempting u-turns on Taylor Bay Road in order to join the ferry line-up.

On 12 June 2014, FAC members met with Ministry officials Renee Mounteney, Nathan Vanden Dungen and Johnathan Tillie and with RCMP representative Markus Muntener  to review the safety hazards presented by this situation. At the end of June 2014, an interim, low-cost solution of additional signage and a second U-turn point at Ivory Way was identified and implemented within a month.

Two years on, and it is evident that signage alone has done little to reduce the number of vehicles making u-turns along what is arguably one of the most hazardous stretches of road on the island.

Earlier this month, the FAC resolved to make a formal approach to the Ministry of Transportation & Infrastructure for a comprehensive review of traffic management for ferry traffic. Our request has the support of BC Ferries but, as we understand the position, BC Ferries does not have the power to invoke changes to traffic arrangements on the highway and we assume therefore that the responsibility for managing the safe marshalling of ferry traffic does actually fall within the purview of the Ministry.

These are some of the key factors that we believe need to be considered:

  • The ferry has a capacity of about 70 vehicles, which typically represents a line-up extending up to 400 linear metres from the terminal to a point that is already beyond the first turn-round bay on Taylor Bay Road – partly as a result of the unofficial parking now occurring opposite the Skol pub, which creates a gap in the line-up.
  • For at least six months of the year, most ferries departing Gabriola between 7am and 1pm attract traffic volumes that extend beyond the first turn-round point and necessitate vehicles making a U-turn somewhere in order to join the line-up.
  • At peak traffic periods, the ferry line-up can routinely extend another 200 metres beyond the turn-round point, continuing on occasions all the way into Ivory Way. Any management plan would therefore need to provide for at least 800 linear metres for ferry traffic to be accommodated at the busiest times, with around 600 linear metres routinely needed throughout the summer.
  • The designated bay for oversize vehicles on North Road is rarely used, since there is no reliable method for oversize traffic to rejoin the line-up at the appropriate place. The overwhelming majority of oversize vehicles therefore join the main line-up on Taylor Bay Road
  • In a typical month, between 400 and 450 large commercial vehicles and buses board the ferry from Gabriola. The impact of this heavy traffic on the structure of the pavement along the ferry line-up is very evident to see, with significant lengths of roadway either breaking up or showing signs of slumping down the embankment.
  • Only 21% of the island’s population actually lives in areas served by Taylor Bay Road, therefore at least 75% of vehicles joining the ferry line-up – and virtually all of the oversize commercial vehicles using the ferry – have to turn round somewhere once the line-up extends into Taylor Bay Road.
  • The FAC recognises that there is no simple solution, but the community remains unconvinced that the present regime of advisory and regulatory signage will ever deliver a self-enforcing solution to the traffic safety problems we have today.
  • Suggestions varying from plastic or concrete median barriers on Taylor Bay Road to a new ferry parking lot built over the inlet alongside Ferry Hill have all been put forward by the community, but do we in fact need to question whether Taylor Bay Road is the wrong place for ferry traffic to be marshalled, given that up to 75% of vehicles approach the line-up from the direction of the village?
  • Is there, for example, a solution that could accommodate the vast majority of ferry traffic along North Road between here and the ferry terminal, with any exceptional overloads using either North Road or South Road? There would be potential conflicts to be managed around property and business accesses and parking for the Saturday farmers market, and there would almost certainly need to be a traffic roundabout created at the North Road/South Road junction, but would such a move offer a safer solution in the longer term?.

The Ferry Advisory Committee is asking MoTI to undertake a comprehensive study of the safety issues created by ferry traffic waiting to leave Gabriola.

The FAC will offer its full support and input to the study and is prepared to put forward an options paper for consideration by the various parties, but would welcome a commitment from the Ministry to take the matter forward before embarking on any further work.

Extra weekend ferries start this weekend

BC Ferries’ revised summer schedule is now in effect, and runs until September 5.

What’s changed? Well, nothing at all on weekdays – but on Saturdays and Sundays the 1.50pm from Gabriola and 2.25pm from Nanaimo are back, to help clear the extra summer traffic. The last day of operation of these extra sailings will be Sunday, September 4th, but they’ll be back for Summer 2017.

To download and print a copy of the summer schedule, click here

What’s happened to our ferry service since 2013?

FAC Chair, John Hodgkins, looks back at how our ferry service has fared since the 2014 cuts.

Just over two years ago, the provincial government took away 14% of our ferry service – slashing 16 round trips a week from the schedule with the aim of achieving $400,000 net savings annually.  The objective, they said, was to deliver an “affordable, efficient and sustainable” ferry service. We were told that there would be service reductions on any route that was not achieving 55% capacity utilisation (Route 19 was better than many, but still only delivering 45.5% utilisation in 2012/13) – and we were told that any round-trip sailing that failed to deliver 20% capacity utilisation would go, which immediately pointed to the first round trip of the day at weekends and the last two sailings each evening as those which were under threat.

Government officials and BC Ferries managers faced grilling after grilling in almost every coastal community, but the Minister was determined to push through the cuts. Gabriolans remained resolute,  insisting that the evening sailings must stay. Health workers, students, food deliveries and ambulances all relied on the late ferries – as well as anyone heading for the Port Theatre, concerts and cinemas in town. Festivals and events on Gabriola needed to attract audiences from Nanaimo. Without a late ferry, they would not come.

After the battering, the message from government softened – albeit only slightly. “If you don’t like what we’re proposing, go find another way of making the saving. Same rules apply, but if there’s a less damaging way of delivering the savings, go ahead and find it” we were told. “Oh, and you’ve only got three months in which to do it”.

BC Ferries, the FAC and other community representatives hammered out an alternative to the government’s plan. It met the essential criteria, but many of us were left wondering whether it would actually work.  Sailings were taken out during the day to protect the late evenings. There would be gaps in service where there never had been before – and the schedule looked, well, optimistic.

And so it was. Summer 2014 was a disaster. Ferries ran up to an hour late; overloads beyond compare – and everyone rapidly lost confidence in the service. Something had to be done to rescue the situation before Summer 2015. After a long – and sometimes painful – dialogue with the community, the FAC reluctantly told BC Ferries that if something had to go in order to rescue the daytime service then, by a narrow margin, the community would rather it was the first (5.30am) sailing than the last. The rest, as they say, is history.

Two years on…

Two years on, and we can now see the results of the cuts imposed in April 2014.  But is the service any more “affordable, efficient and sustainable”?

Ferry fares continued to rise at twice the rate of inflation in 2014 and 2015 – and this year, only the collapsing cost of fuel has saved ferry users (so far, at least) from a further increase of 1.9%. It will undoubtedly come sometime. But until it does, we will be told that lower fares, the stronger economy and a low Canadian dollar are all contributing to a steady increase in ferry ridership. Except on Gabriola it seems. As this chart shows, the picture is not quite so rosy on Gabriola, where the number of vehicles using our ferry fell sharply in the year following the cuts, and is only now starting to recover.

Route comparison 1

The service cuts in 2014 had an immediate effect on traffic levels (the charts on our Route 19 Performance page demonstrate that) – and yes, at the start of 2016 traffic is returning to where it was before the cuts. But where is the 5% increase seen on other routes?  The answer is that the service cuts to Gabriola’s ferry service caused a 4% slump in demand that is only now starting to return. Without those cuts, we too would have been seeing traffic growth in the 3%-5% range.

But service cuts were not the only factor that led to the decline in traffic. Unreliability and excessive overloads contributed too – and it’s little wonder that BC Ferries’ 2014 customer satisfaction survey uncovered reactions so strong from Gabriolans that the corporation had to explain the collapse in public confidence to the BC Ferry Commissioner.

On-time performance

on time performance

In Summer 2014, on-time performance fell to its lowest level for many years as the “optimistic” schedule produced by BC Ferries proved to be unworkable. Delays crept in every morning and got progressively worse through the day. Restoring reliability became one of the FAC’s priorities as we negotiated around a modified schedule for 2015 – and as the chart above shows, performance improved substantially last summer, with fewer than 1 in 10 ferries delayed more than 10 minutes, even during the peak summer months.



Summer 2014 also saw the number of overloaded sailings shoot up by almost 50% – leading to frustration among residents (many of whom cut the number of trips they made as a result) and – with the gaps in service at weekends – leading to long delays for visitors who simply didn’t come back in summer 2015. That’s why the FAC has pressed BC Ferries to reinstate the early afternoon sailings at weekends for Summer 2016.

Capacity utilisation

So has the government’s aim of improving utilisation to 55% been achieved?

capacity utilisation

Well, the simple answer is…. no. Not so far, anyway.  In 2014/15, utilisation crept up from 45% to 47% then, as confidence started to return, reached close to 50% in 2015/16. But bear in mind, even if vehicle traffic had increased by 5% that would only push capacity utilisation to 52% – so is that 55% target really achievable?

As we’ve seen, many of our daytime ferries are already full (or very close to full) and our late evening sailings remain stubbornly down in the 20% ‘danger zone’ that government targeted in 2013.  The FAC will continue to press BC Ferries for discounted fares on evening sailings as we believe that offers the best route to increasing ridership.

Affordable, efficient and sustainable?

That remains the government’s vision. But is there a strategy to deliver that vision? If the wall of silence from government over the past two years is anything to go by, then the strategy (if it exists) remains shrouded in mystery.

Fare increases have been fixed close to the rate of inflation between now and 2019, but does that make the ferry system any more affordable? Many would say not.

And, as we’ve seen on Gabriola, squeezing every last minute out of the schedule did not make our service efficient – just the opposite, in fact. It simply made the service unreliable. We now have a schedule that would probably be regarded as inefficient (it has “spare” time built in after every trip) but can actually be relied on. Is that efficiency?

Then comes the big question. What is sustainable? Actually, anything is sustainable if there’s the will to pay for it.

There’s more detail on the FAC’s analysis of the past three years here.

Next FAC meeting now to be held on June 10

The postponed meeting of the Ferry Advisory Committee is now scheduled for Friday, June 10 2016 at the Gabriola Arts Council Hall (the old WI Hall) on South Road, starting at 10.15am.

Members of the public are welcome to attend, but we would remind you that this is not an open-house meeting, rather a business meeting between the FAC and BC Ferries. Should you wish to speak on any particular topic, please contact the Chair at before the meeting, so that we can ensure a time slot is available for you.

More weekend ferries this Summer

Gabriola Ferry Advisory Committee today received the news it had been waiting for since December; agreement from BC Ferries to introduce an extra round trip between Gabriola and Nanaimo on Summer weekends, plugging the 2.5 hour early afternoon service gap on Summer Saturdays and Sundays.

The extra services will initially operate for a two –year pilot between late June and early September 2016 and 2017, with an opportunity to review performance after the 2016 summer season.

Since the cuts imposed by Provincial government in 2014, the FAC has worked with BC Ferries to refine ferry schedules and improve the reliability of our ferry service. A schedule change in April 2015 helped improve on-time performance and removed mid-day gaps in the service on Mondays to Fridays – but at weekends, when traffic volumes were lower for most of the year, the 1.50pm departure from Gabriola and 2.25pm from Nanaimo weren’t reinstated – and the services either side continued to overload throughout Summer 2015.

Committee members were informed at their November meeting with BC Ferries that extra services would only be considered if a clear business case could be made – a task made more difficult by the inability to obtain route-specific financial information from BC Ferries. Undeterred, FAC representatives met with BCF managers in December 2015 to present evidence supporting the reinstatement of the early afternoon sailings on summer weekends.

The problems were evident; whereas traffic levels on most BC Ferries routes have recovered to pre-2014 levels, traffic on the Gabriola route has yet to return to the levels carried before the 2014 service cuts – and the recovery has been slowest during the peak summer months, reflecting a continuing loss of tourist traffic. Data provided by BC Ferries confirmed that the reduced weekend service had been unable to deliver adequate daytime capacity in Summer 2015 – and the FAC argued that this was due in large part to the missing early afternoon sailings.

This decision by BC Ferries follows three months of critical analysis by BCF management, who also had to convince the Province that the extra services would not dilute the financial savings achieved in 2014.

FAC Chair John Hodgkins welcomed today’s news, especially since similar requests on some other routes had failed to deliver the stringent business case required by BC Ferries.

“In our negotiation with BC Ferries, we were able to demonstrate that the potential extra revenue would make a significant contribution towards covering the cost of an additional round trip – and we explored with BC Ferries how they might deliver the extra services at marginal cost. We acknowledged that outside the peak summer period the case was less convincing, but we pressed BC Ferries to identify a solution that would not impact on services at other times of the day.”

“We urged BC Ferries to consider a one-year trial, so today’s commitment to piloting the improved schedule over two summers is very good news. It means we will have the opportunity to review how the service performs after the 2016 summer season and explore options for extending the trial beyond Summer 2017.”

“Most importantly, we have a decision from BC Ferries that will hopefully encourage more tourists back to Gabriola in 2016 – and bring a much-needed boost to our local economy.”

The extra services will operate each weekend from June 29 until September 6, 2016. Full details of the summer 2016 schedule can be found now on the BC Ferries website.