Ferry Connections : too much to ask?

Recently, a Gabriola family was returning from Vancouver on the 9pm ferry from Horseshoe Bay- due to arrive in Nanaimo at 10.40pm.  Their plan left plenty of time for the short drive from Departure Bay to Nanaimo Harbour to catch the last ferry at 11.30pm to Gabriola. Most nights the connection works fine – but that evening, problems backed up for BC Ferries at Horseshoe Bay with several delayed sailings and it was 9.45pm before the ferry left for Nanaimo, meaning it wouldn’t arrive at Departure Bay until about 11.25pm.

Fearing they would miss their connection, the family went to the Pursor’s office and asked the Pursor to call ahead to Nanaimo Harbour and arrange for Quinsam’s last sailing to be held a few minutes for them to get home.  Their request was refused and when they finally arrived in Nanaimo Harbour at 11.35pm, Quinsam had sailed without them.  That delay cost the family over $100 for a hotel room in Nanaimo.

FAC Chair, John Hodgkins, contacted BC Ferries for clarification of their policy on guaranteeing connections to last ferries. Their response indicated that there is no established procedure whereby the Route 19 vessel will hold for connecting traffic from Route 2 on the last sailing to Gabriola- and BC Ferries has no plans to introduce one, citing the following reasons:

  • Delaying the last sailing to Gabriola may incur additional overtime costs, which puts further pressure on future fare increases
  • If there is not a precise understanding of which vehicles are trying to make the connection, the potential for missed connections still remains if other vehicles also arrive late at the Nanaimo Harbour terminal
  • Drivers hurrying to make connections are more likely to drive fast and present a road safety risk.

All of which is undoubtedly true – but BC Ferries acknowledged that “informal” arrangements have existed in the past on this and other routes to hold connecting late night services when ferries run late.

Sadly, it seems this is yet another example of corporate policy overriding local consideration – without any thought to the impact on the customer.

It’s not all down to the BC Ferry Corporation, of course. Elsewhere, governments impose punctuality targets, performance penalties and passenger compensation schemes to protect travellers. Not so in BC it seems.

Take Europe, for example. Throughout the EU, ferry passengers delayed more than an hour are entitled to a 25% fare refund, rising to 50% if the delay exceeds two hours. If your delay requires overnight accommodation, the ferry operator may have to pay.

It’s the same on Britain’s railways, where the government’s “Delay Repay” scheme guarantees a 50% refund if trains are delayed by 30 minutes, rising to 100% for a delay of one hour. In most cases, these operators too are private corporations, so compensation to passengers comes straight off their bottom line. Should the BC government be taking a leaf out of Europe’s book on customer protection?

At our recent FAC meeting we implored BC Ferries to adopt more flexible approach to solving local problems with local solutions.  An offer from BC Ferries to discuss their strategy for delayed connections with the FAC would have been welcomed. No offer has been forthcoming, so this must now go on our list to take up with BC Ferries at our next discussion.

For the FAC to take up the need for assured late-night connections, we need to consider the facts.

  • Until a few years ago, the last ferry to Gabriola left Nanaimo Harbour at 11pm. That meant it was almost impossible to catch the 9pm ferry from Horseshoe Bay and still make the connection to Gabriola. Now, Quinsams last sailing is at 11.30pm – and, for the time being at least, that’s the way it’s likely to stay.
  • Driving time to Nanaimo Harbour (according to Google) is 6 minutes from Departure Bay and 15 minutes from Duke Point. Let’s call it 10 minutes and 20 minutes to be on the safe side.  BC Ferries allows up to 15 minutes for unloading from the big ferries and expects customers with cars to check in at Nanaimo Harbour at least 5 minutes before departure.  So, if everything runs to schedule, we should allow up to 30 minutes for connections from Departure Bay and 40 minutes from Duke Point.
  • The BC government determines that ferry arrivals up to 10 minutes after scheduled time will still be considered “on time” – so that suggests we might need up to 40 minutes to ensure a connection from Departure Bay and 50 minutes from Duke Point.
  • Any ferry delayed by more than 10 minutes is reported as a ‘late sailing’ and the reason for the delay is recorded by BC Ferries. A delay of more than 20 minutes automatically triggers a “service notice” on the BCF website and email alerts to any customer that has subscribed to receive them.
  • From mid-October to mid-May, the late ferry from Horseshoe Bay departs at 9pm and arrives at Departure Bay at 10.40pm, 50 minutes before the last ferry to Gabriola. We should reasonably expect to be able to make that connection with ease.
  • During the summer months, the late ferry leaves Horseshoe Bay at 9.30 pm and arrives in Departure Bay at 11.10pm.  That’s just 20 minutes before the last Gabriola ferry – and realistically, too late for a reliable connection to be possible.  The previous departure (7.30pm from Horseshoe Bay) arrives in Departure Bay at 9.10pm – probably too late for the 9.25 departure to Gabriola, but in plenty of time for the 10.25.
  • The 8.15pm ferry from Tsawwassen  arrives at Duke Point at 10.15pm, a full hour and a quarter before the last ferry to Gabriola. Again, we should reasonably expect to be able to make a connection to Gabriola from this sailing.

So, what should the FAC be proposing to BC Ferries?  Here are some of my own suggestions:

  • Passengers arriving on time to travel with a vehicle on the 9pm sailing from Horseshoe Bay (7.30pm in summer) and the 8.15pm sailing from Tsawwassen should be able to purchase a transfer ticket right through to Gabriola (similar to the transfer tickets already sold to the Southern Gulf Islands).  That way, BC Ferries would know by 9pm (latest) how many vehicles need to make the connection to Gabriola and could advise the Nanaimo Harbour terminal accordingly.
  • On arrival at Nanaimo Harbour, customers would exchange their transfer ticket for a ticket to Gabriola at no extra charge. Once all transfer tickets are accounted for, the last sailing to Gabriola would not need to be held.
  • If the 9pm sailing from Horseshoe Bay is delayed by more than the 10 minute “on time” window,  the information is already available to staff at Nanaimo Harbour terminal (via the BC Ferries website) and they should be alert to the possible need to hold the 11.30pm sailing to Gabriola.  The same could apply to the 8.15pm departure from Tsawwassen.
  • If the number of transfer tickets exchanged at Nanaimo Harbour does not balance, BC Ferries should be prepared to hold the 11.30pm departure to Gabriola for up to 10 minutes (still considered to be “on time” by the ferry contract) in expectation of connecting passengers still to arrive.
  • If the 9pm sailing from Horseshoe Bay is delayed more than 20 minutes, so the arrival time is likely to be less than 30 minutes before the last ferry to Gabriola, BC Ferries should contact Nanaimo Harbour terminal and a potential hold to the Gabriola ferry requested. A hold for up to 10 further minutes (until 11.50pm) would not seem unreasonable – but ONLY if the delay to the 9pm sailing from Horseshoe Bay (or the 8.15pm sailing from Tsawwassen) exceeds 20 minutes – and ONLY if passengers on board have purchased transfer tickets. That way, any extra cost to BC Ferries should be minimised.
  • The FAC should publish and maintain a list of accommodations in Nanaimo which offer discounted rates for passengers missing the last ferry to Gabriola (as a few already do) and provide that list to BC Ferries. In the event that the last sailing from the mainland is seriously delayed, it would be the passenger’s responsibility to obtain a copy of the list from the Purser on board who could, if appropriate, call ahead to check availability. The transfer ticket could be presented at the hotel to obtain the discount and it would remain valid for onward travel to Gabriola the following morning.

Travelling at any time of day has to be a shared responsibility – but late evening travel presents different challenges. We all understand that ferries can be delayed for any number of reasons, but more than anything else the ferry user needs to be confident that if things do go wrong, BC Ferries shares that responsibility to try and put things right – accepting any resultant cost – within reasonable limits.

The FAC understands that BC Ferries’ ticketing systems may not be able (yet) to accommodate new ticket variants, but we also know that BCF  has printed boarding passes available for use when our ferry system faces disruption. A similar system could be used temporarily to provide evidence of payment for a transfer to Gabriola.

The FAC needs to hear the views of ferry users before we can take this matter further with BC Ferries. There’s no guarantee our suggestions will be accepted, but we need need to know what you consider to be a realistic solution.  You can comment via this website, or email us directly at gabriola.fac@gmail.com

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4 thoughts on “Ferry Connections : too much to ask?

  1. Thank you for a sensible set of reasonable suggestions. Please do take this matter up with BC Ferries. This issue has been a major aggravation for years. Any scientifically-sound cost-benefit analysis would, I believe, demonstrate the value of adequate connectability between transport modes. The Ministry of Highways (for whom I once worked as an economist) normally uses the time spent by drivers as justification for time-saving infrastructure investments; why would BCF not do likewise?

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