BCF report to Ferry Commission needs careful interpretation

BC Ferries’ annual report to the Ferry Commission was published on 31 July. The report provides detailed analysis of each route’s operations for the previous fiscal year, and is the basis upon which the performance tables on this website are compiled.

As already reported, vehicle and passenger traffic on Route 19 (Nanaimo to Gabriola) declined by 4% last year. The average number of vehicles per sailing reduced from 33 to 32, and passengers declined from 71 per sailing to 68. Yet the number of reported overloads increased slightly from 4.0% to 4.2% – which suggests that the busiest sailings are getting busier and the quieter sailings becoming even quieter.

The good news is that on-time performance hit an all-time high of 93% this year – up dramatically from 80% two years ago – thanks, no doubt, to the combined effects of the current schedule and the continuing decline in traffic.

Every year, BC Ferries is required to run a specified number of sailings on each route. For route 19, that means 5,748 round trips in 2011/12 (up slightly from last year because 2012 is a leap year). Only 3 round trips were cancelled during the year – quite an achievement given the disruption caused by the unexpected closure of Nanaimo Harbour last summer. The water-taxi brought in to maintain a service for walk-on passengers made an extra 314 round trips, the costs of which were, we are told, recovered from the erring contractor’s insurance.

In their report to the Commission, BCF claims a significant increase in the number of car spaces offered this year; up by almost 11,000 over last year. That’s three times more than we would expect, even in a leap year…. so how can that be?  The answer, we suspect, is that BCF’s calculations assume that the extra sailings provided extra car space too – on the water taxi!  They didn’t, of course, so the likely reality is that the 812,000 vehicle capacity claimed was actually nearer to 804,000. What that means then is that the all-important utilisation figure for the route (which BCF reports as having dropped from 47.9% last year to 45.1%) is probably 45.6%. Not a huge difference in the greater scheme of things, but with the Province threatening to axe $30 million of under-utilised sailings over the next couple of years, it would be good to know that the performance of the Gabriola route has been reported correctly.

The financial performance of Route 19 declined further this year too. Operating costs rose by $236,000 (3.2%) but revenue also increased by $58,000 – thanks, primarily to almost $100,000 of extra income from Social Program Fees (students, seniors and health trips).  Thus, despite a 4% decrease in passengers, BC Ferries actually received more in revenue because the Province funds students and seniors at full fare, while many of us travel at reduced (Experience Card) rates.

The bad news is that the cost of financing the capital investment in vessels and terminals rose last year by almost $450,000, reflecting the first full-year impact of Quinsam’s $20m refurbishment as well as some of the cost of the Nanaimo Harbour redevelopment. All of which results in the shortfall on route 19 (after Provincial support is taken into account) rising from $164,000 to $286,000 this year.

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