FAC meets with BC Ferries and Ministry on traffic issues

On March 6th FAC members Heather O’Sullivan, Peggy Richardson and Steve Earle met with Darin Guenette,  John MacDonald and Lance Lomax of BC Ferries and Stu Johnson of the Ministry of Transportation & Infrastructure (MoTI).  The meeting had been called by BCF with the primary objective of discussing the FAC’s proposal to re-route the ferry line-up.  Other matters were also discussed.

Ferry line-up

We explained that our key issue is safety in the ferry line-up, and that we do not think it’s possible to make it safe on Taylor Bay Road.  There was discussion about U-turns, the width and curvature of Taylor Bay Road, the lack of room for a median barrier, the likely futility and high cost of flexible median separators, the slope of the shoulder on the west side of the road and the instability of the bank.

Stu indicated that MoTI have no intention of changing anything, that there is no money available and that he was not aware that this is a big issue for a majority of Gabriolans.  He said that a study would be needed before anything could be done.

With support from BCF we explained that this is a significant issue, that it is a major topic of conversation in many venues, and that at the November FAC meeting there were community members that supported our proposal for a change and none that did not support it.  While there are other road issues, everybody on Gabriola is affected by the ferry line-up, even those who are not lining up for the ferry.

Stu said that the only effective way to get MoTI’s attention, so that a study could be initiated, would be to write to the Minister, and that the message would filter down from there.  He said that it would help to get community groups, local government and other authorities (e.g., RCMP) to write as well, and that an expression of support from individual community members would also have some impact. FAC members will progress this.

North Road/Taylor Bay Road intersection

MoTI is going to be doing some major work at the intersection of Taylor Bay Road and North Road., starting either late this month or during April.  This will include replacement of the culvert on Taylor Bay Road and re-grading of the last few tens of metres of Taylor Bay Road so as to reduce the steep up-hill grade at the intersection itself.  Taylor Bay Road will be kept open throughout the project.

Descanso Bay parking

John MacDonald suggested that we try to get some community feedback on the problem of long-term parkers at the BCF Descanso Bay parking lot.  He wants to know what the community thinks the time limit should be (e.g., 12 h, 24 h, 48 h …).  Once an appropriate limit has been determined, BCF will install signage and will patrol the lot.  The FAC agreed to carry out a community survey.

Medical-assured loading

John MacDonald said that BCF is planning to move ahead with two medical assured loading spaces at the front of the Descanso Bay line-up, and has been working with MoTI to determine lane markings and signage.  He asked the FAC to work with the community and with health officials to create protocols for issuance of assured loading passes.

Snuneymuxw take over ferry service to Newcastle Island : fares cut to $5


Photo : Snuneymuxw First Nation

Snuneymuxw First Nation has purchased the 48-seat vessel Grey Selkie from Victoria Harbour Ferry Co. to provide improved access and transportation to Newcastle Island while strengthening the Snuneymuxw economy. Fares for the round trip to Newcastle Island will be just $5 this year, down from the previous $9 fare – which was seen as a deterrent, especially for families.

NCI Ferry Service President Erralyn Thomas said they plan to run the ferry from April through October at the very least, and hope to provide limited access year-round, if demand is warranted. In her eyes, SFN taking over ferry service is a catalyst for further economic and cultural opportunities for Snuneymuxw. The new operator, NCI Ferry Service Ltd. is beneficially owned by Snuneymuxw First Nation and is responsible for NCI management and development.

The new ferry service starts on April 1 and will be as frequent as every half-hour in the peak summer period, running on a triangular route between the Waterfront Suites and Marina dock on Stewart Ave., Maffeo Sutton Park and Newcastle Island.

Cold December hits ferry traffic

After a year of almost continuous growth in ferry traffic, 2016 came to a bitterly cold end, resulting in fewer trips being made on our ferry than in December 2015. Passenger numbers were down in December by 4.4%, and vehicle traffic down by 1.5%. A similar pattern was seen across most BC Ferries routes, including the major route from Departure Bay to Horseshoe Bay. One route bucking the trend however is Route 30 (Duke Point to Tsawwassen) which saw vehicle traffic rise by 10% in December, and passenger traffic up by 12%.

Despite this sting in the tail, 2016, ferry traffic to and from Gabriola during 2016 increased overall by 3.4% (vehicles) and 1.25% (passengers) compared to 2015 – and, at last, traffic has returned to the levels we were seeing before the ferry cuts of April 2014 – albeit we now have two less sailings each day.

Explaining the traffic growth in 2016 is relatively easy.  Continuing low fuel prices for most of the year encouraged domestic travel, and tourist from overseas rose by 12% in 2016. Not to mention the one extra day (February 29) which on on its own contributed 0.25% to the annual growth.  Forecasting 2017 may be more challenging, especially if rising fuel prices bring the present 2.9% fare rebate to an end.

Gabriola FAC monitors ferry traffic by calendar year, whereas BC Ferries reports annually based on the fiscal year (April to March), resulting in annual fluctuations created by an early or late Easter. The fiscal year to March 2017 included no Easter holiday, whereas this Easter falls in April and Easter break 2018 will span two fiscal years. By comparing calendar years, this distortion is avoided.  See our Route 19 Performance page for details.

BC Ferries explains why they have changed how vessel capacity is measured

In response to our Quinsam Shrinks article,  BC Ferries has offered clarification on some of the questions asked. Here’s what Mark Collins, Vice President (Strategic Planning and Community Engagement) had to say in response to our statements:

FAC: The AEQ is a measure of deck space which was deemed to be the equivalent of one car length. The value of this calculation was that it enables BC Ferries to report accurately on what percentage of each route’s vehicle capacity was actually being used.

BCF: In fact the calculation you refer as “…accurately…” had a flaw.  With this change we have corrected it.  

FAC: Cars have got smaller over the years and it’s not at all unusual for Quinsam to carry 75 or more vehicles on busier sailings

BCF: We don’t have any data which suggests the average car size has gotten smaller.  Our information suggests the opposite, that the average size of vehicles has grown. 

FAC: Quinsam’s capacity has dropped from 70 AEQ’s to just 63.

BCF: Sorry but this is not an accurate statement.  The Quinsam’s capacity did not change; the deck area is exactly the same before and after the change.  All that has changed is the unit of measure of deck area.  Rather like measuring a house today in sq ft and tomorrow in sq meters, the house is still the same size. There is no intention to reduce numbers allowed on board.  Nothing has changed except how the area of the deck is measured.

FAC: An AEQ has been recalculated as 6.1 metres (20 feet) – which happens to be the maximum length of vehicle that can travel at the standard fare, but that’s where the logic seems to end.

BCF: 6.1 m AEQ is used in more places than just the standard fare determination.  In fact, the old 5.3m AEQ was a primary measure in a single place in our systems: the measurement of ship deck space.  There are many other places in our system that all use 6.1 m AEQ.  Terminal holding compounds for example, are measured with 6.1 m AEQ and have been for decades.  The old measure of deck space using 5.3m was the exception, not the rule. BCF should have fixed this years ago but didn’t because it didn’t want lose comparability with past data.  So we allowed two different measures of the same quantity/parameter to perpetuate.  

What about backwards comparability?  To allow backward comparability one or more previous years traffic data will be re-stated using 6.1m AEQ in our reports.  We will adjust other reports on an as needed basis.

 Why harmonize on the 6.1m AEQ and not the 5.3?   Since: (1) the majority of our systems are already based on 6.1m AEQ, and (2) since 6.1m is a more accurate reflection of the reality of today’s vehicles, harmonizing on the 6.1m AEQ required the fewest changes, least disruption and provided the greatest efficency gain.  It also gives is capacity numbers which most closely match customer’s experience.

FAC: Quinsam will continue to carry 75 or more vehicles at busy times, so the new measure seems, well, meaningless.

BCF: Meaningless to some maybe but not meaningless to us and certainly not to people who wish to see good ferry system performance.  In our view this more accurately reflects the proportion of space used since the 6.1m AEQ is closer to the average size vehicle we actually carry.  Most of our fleet routinely carries below the old stated AEQ capacity.  This changes beings our standard capacities more in line with reality, not further away.

FAC: What’s worse is that it now means vehicle utilization statistics reported to government are suddenly 10% higher than they were before. There’s an explanation that an AEQ is now longer, but no explanation why.  

BCF: we trust the “why” is now satisfactorily explained above.

FAC: To the casual observer (or as a message to a new government) it’s great news of course. Our ferry (which was targeted for cuts in 2013 because it only achieved 45% utilisation) has now averaged 58% over the past year – peaking at 66% in summer 2016.

BCF: We trust the above explanation makes clear the lack of foundation for the “message” insinuation.

FAC: Not really. Applying the formula used in 2013, it has increased from 45% to 52% in the past year – and this summer vehicle utilisation was up by 2% from last year to 59%, not 66%. Vehicle utilisation is increasing, but why change the formula now?

BCF: There is no good time to make a change of this type.  But it still had to be done to correct the issues above.  Why now?  (1) Accurate specifications were needed in Fall 2016 for the new Minor 44 vessel (as they will be for the many other new vessel and terminal projects coming), and (2) Accurate, realistic measures of deck space are required for the new point of sale and reservation systems we are presently building. Finally, the measure is not a vehicle limit.  It is measure of standard capacity. 

Chair’s comment –

I’m grateful to BC Ferries for supplying this explanation.

So it seems the new measure is here to stay. It does not affect the number of vehicles carried – and, in the eyes of BC Ferries at least, it more accurately represents reality, as well as providing solace to “people who wish to see good ferry system performance” (presumably meaning  government).

But, as a formula, does the new methodology really give a more accurate reflection of capacity utilisation?  I’m not so sure. A ferry with 70 cars on it used to be recorded as full. Now, with a notional capacity of 63, 7 of the cars on that ferry will be counted as “over capacity”. The daily total may not change, but it must surely distort the reported utilisation measure?

Quinsam shrinks – but how, when and why?

For as long as most of us can remember, the Quinsam had capacity for 70 vehicles – or, as BC Ferries refers to them, 70 AEQs (automobile equivalents).  The AEQ was, quite simply, a measure of deck space – notionally 5.3 metres – which was deemed to be the equivalent of one car length. When commercial vehicles and buses used the ferry, they would be counted as multiples of 1 AEQ, on the basis that a large semi-truck would occupy the space of 3 cars,  a bus the space of 2 – and so on. The value of this calculation was that it enabled BC Ferries to report accurately on what percentage of each route’s vehicle capacity was actually being used.

In reality, of course, cars have got smaller over the years and it’s not at all unusual for Quinsam to carry 75 or more vehicles on busier sailings – up to 80 automobile equivalents.

Now, for reasons best known to BC Ferries, Quinsam’s capacity has dropped from 70 AEQ’s to just 63.  We’re told that’s because an AEQ has been recalculated as 6.1 metres (20 feet) – which happens to be the maximum length of vehicle that can travel at the standard fare, but that’s where the logic seems to end.  Quinsam will continue to carry 75 or more vehicles at busy times, so the new measure seems, well, meaningless.

What’s worse is that it now means vehicle utilisation statistics reported to government are suddenly 10% higher than they were before. In the 3 months from July to September 2016, BC Ferries reported that our ferry operated at almost 66% of available capacity – when last summer the reported figure was just 57%. Sure, there’s an explanation that an AEQ is now longer, but no explanation why.  

To the casual observer (or as a message to a new government) it’s great news of course. Our ferry (which was targeted for cuts in 2013 because it only achieved 45% utilisation) has now averaged 58% over the past year – peaking at 66% in summer 2016.

No, it hasn’t.

Applying the formula used in 2013, it has increased from 45% to 52% in the past year – and this summer vehicle utilisation was up by 2% from last year to 59%, not 66%. So Quinsam hasn’t shrunk after all, and there’s no suggestion that fewer vehicles are being allowed on.  Vehicle utilisation is increasing, that’s plain for anyone to see, but why change the formula now?

Maybe BC Ferries can explain the logic.

Meanwhile, here is a graph showing the vehicle utilisation each quarter since 2013 – using the formula that has served everyone well since forever. To enable this comparison to be maintained, the FAC will continue to apply the “old” AEQ formula during 2017.

Percentage of vehicle capacity utilised each quarter – Route 19 (based on Quinsam’s 70 AEQ capacity)


End of Year Report from the Chair

Signs of improvement – but could do better

FAC Chair John  Hodgkins takes a look back at 2016 and finds signs of improvement on Gabriola’s ferry service

By the end of 2016,  vehicle traffic on the Gabriola ferry route will have increased almost 4% over 2015, and passenger traffic will be up nearly 2%.

BC Ferries will tell us it’s down to a weak Canadian dollar attracting more visitors from south of the border, and more Canadians taking their vacations at home – and to some degree it is, but what do these figures actually mean for Gabriolans facing ever longer line-ups for our ferry?

The big picture

BC Ferries data isn’t always straightforward when it comes to comparing like with like (no surprise there then, I hear you say).  The corporation reports by fiscal year (FY) ending in March, which means some years include one Easter holiday, some (like FYs 2008, 2013 and 2016) have two – and typically the following year will have none at all. For that reason, the FAC usually monitors ferry traffic by calendar year to iron out the “Easter effect”.

Another complexity is BC Ferries’ method of counting vehicles. Each month they publish actual vehicle numbers (counting every vehicle as 1, irrespective of size). By the time the annual reports are published, vehicle numbers have been converted to AEQs (automobile equivalents) where commercial vehicles and buses count as 2 or 3 AEQs, depending on size. So, at the year end, the reported numbers using Route 19 are inflated by around 5.5% once they are expressed as AEQs. Simple, or what?

So let’s take a look at how 2016 (and, from what we are seeing, the remainder of this fiscal year to March 2017) actually compares to previous years.   Continue reading

Traffic and safety concerns raised once more

Gabriola Ferry Advisory Committee is deeply concerned about safety on the roadways immediately around the ferry terminal at Descanso Bay and in the area of the traffic queue along Taylor Bay Road, where dangerous and illegal manoeuvers are common amongst those wanting to ensure their position in the line-up. The situation is even more hazardous at present because of slippery surfaces and busy holiday traffic.

In August 2015 the FAC wrote to the Ministry of Transportation and Infrastructure pointing out the danger to pedestrians and cyclists at the terminal itself. Without even a crosswalk for pedestrians, the situation at the terminal is extremely dangerous, especially when the ferry is loading and unloading and the traffic level is intense and chaotic. Our request for a study of traffic safety was supported by the Gabriola Local Trust Committee, the Gabriola Transportation Advisory Commission, the Regional District of Nanaimo, School District 68 and the Gabriola Island RCMP but so far, nothing has been done by the Ministry of Transportation and Infrastructure (MoTI).

In September of 2016 the FAC wrote again to MoTI, emphasizing the very dangerous situation on Taylor Bay Road stating that: “Summer 2016 has seen further growth in ferry traffic, with long queues most days along Taylor Bay Road. Increasing numbers of drivers are making U-turns on Taylor Bay Road, leading to at least one accident and several near-misses. RCMP officers have cautioned or ticketed drivers making dangerous and illegal U-turns on the highway.” The Ministry was asked to consider a number of different options for re-routing the line-up, but to date has not responded to our request.

The issue of road safety was also a major part of the FAC’s meeting with BC Ferries in November 2016, where the FAC put forward a proposal to re-route the ferry line-up from narrow and curvy Taylor Bay Road where about 80% of drivers are forced to make a U-turn to join the queue, to North Road.

It’s not just the FAC that is concerned about safety around the ferry terminal. Gabriola residents are taking to social media once more since the winter weather arrived, concerned about drivers ignoring traffic signs, making illegal u-turns and blocking the traffic lane by parking across Mallett Creek bridge.

The FAC is calling on BC Ferries and the Ministry of Transportation and Infrastructure to take immediate action to resolve the traffic safety issues around the ferry terminal on Gabriola, and to make our roads safer for pedestrians, cyclists and motorists.

FAC meeting with BC Ferries this Friday

Gabriola FAC members will be meeting with BC Ferries management this Friday (November 18) in the Agricultural Hall, South Road, starting at 9am.  The agenda for this meeting can be found here

Members of the public are welcome to attend, but please keep in mind that this is not an open-house meeting, so if you wish to speak on any topic please email us with the topic on which you would like to speak before the meeting at gabriola.fac@gmail.com, or speak to the Vice-Chair, Steven Earle, before the start of the meeting.


What’s happened to our ferry service since 2013?

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.

Route comparison 1

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.

On-time performance

on time performance

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.

Capacity utilisation

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

capacity utilisation

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.