Ferries feeling the squeeze

Twice a year, Ferry Advisory Committees receive a mountain of data from BC Ferries, detailing the volume of traffic on each ferry sailing over the preceding six months. On Gabriola, we use that data to update our Best Times to Travel guide on the FAC website. But the data also reveals just how much busier our ferries have become and enables us to look back at what’s changed since 2012, the year in which the plans for cutting back our ferry service were being hatched by government. Those cuts finally took effect in April 2014.

Back in 2012, almost a third of our ferry sailings to and from Gabriola fell below the 20% occupancy level that placed them into the “at risk” category in the mind of government. Even during July – always one of the busiest month of the year – one in four of our ferries fell below the 20% threshold and only one in ten actually departed full.

Oh, how things have changed. The FAC recently compared ferry usage in July 2017 on a like-for-like basis with traffic levels five years ago.  The growing pressure on our daytime ferry service can be all too clearly seen on these charts. The first two charts show the change in traffic volume on ferries leaving Gabriola in 2012 and 2017. July from Gabriola july keyThis summer, just one in eight ferries sailed with less than 20% occupancy (most of those were during the late evening) but no less than 1 in every 4 departures is now full or over-subscribed, resulting in long delays and missed appointments. This July, it was virtually impossible to find space on a ferry leaving Gabriola any time between 7am and 3pm on weekdays. A similar situation was emerging on ferries leaving Nanaimo between 1.30pm and 6.30pm as the following charts show:July from Nanaimo
Copies of the charts shown above, together with equivalents for January, May and October, can be downloaded here

Tuesdays and Thursdays are, as always, the busiest days but now the squeeze is hitting other days too, and often lasting throughout the day. Weekends have become noticeably busier too – not just in summer, but for much of the year. Thankfully, BC Ferries has agreed to reinstate the early afternoon sailings on busy weekends following the FAC’s intervention last year, but even Sunday morning ferries are now close to capacity leaving Gabriola – just one more sign of our growing visitor numbers.

We have also seen a progressive increase in the volume of commercial traffic on our ferry to and from Gabriola. In the past few years the number of large trucks arriving from Nanaimo each weekday between 7 and 10am has almost trebled. Most are making deliveries to Gabriola then leaving the island again between 10 and 3 – adding yet more pressure to those same overloaded ferries. We need to encourage local businesses to reschedule their deliveries to times and days when the ferry is less busy and the long waits in line-ups can be avoided.

Of course, the FAC recognises that many Gabriolans need to plan their trips to town midweek, and that’s unlikely to change anytime soon. However, given the pressure on our ferry last summer, the potential for our government’s recently announced fare incentives focussing yet more traffic onto those same over-subscribed ferries should be a concern to us all. How long must we wait for a solution to this problem?

There is no simple solution of course. A larger ferry would help, but that’s still years away. There’s no slack in Quinsam’s schedule, so extra daytime sailings are out. In their recent letter to Minister Trevena, the FAC drew attention to its concerns and urged government to look seriously at measures that will ensure we have adequate ferry capacity in 2018 and beyond to meet the anticipated increase in demand. The problem is here and now, and we must hope that the Minister will use this Review of BC Ferries’ operations to identify a robust and sustainable solution for Gabriola.

The only immediate solution that the FAC can see is to ask for some flexibility in the implementation of free seniors’ travel so that we can encourage some ferry users onto the less-used Friday through Monday sailings. There would still be 4 days of free travel for seniors. The FAC is committed to an open decision-making process, so if we are given the opportunity to recommend changes we will consult with the community first.

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One thought on “Ferries feeling the squeeze

  1. Helpful analysis as always. It isn’t immediately clear to me whether reinstating the lost sailing full year would make any difference by taking pressure off the times of day where we are increasingly seeing overloads.

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