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”.

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