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