Ferries needs to adjust to market

B.C. Ferries should perhaps follow the lead of the airline industry in trying to maximize profits.

The B.C. Ferry Commission has spent the past several months reviewing the affordability of the coastal ferry service.

The final report and recommendations are expected to be released any day now. They should offer some compromise between the current government-imposed fare cap and larger increases proposed by former B.C. Ferries CEO David Hahn last February.

There aren’t a lot of ways to bring down the cost of running a ferry. On the rare occasion I spoke with Hahn during his tenure, he made it clear where our fares go: fuelling the ships and paying for a relatively large crew aboard the ferry, the number of which can’t be reduced due to Transport Canada regulations on the ratio of safety-trained personnel to passengers.

But B.C. Ferries only makes money when there are people on board paying for tickets and buying pricey snacks. So if fares get too high and coastal residents reduce their discretionary travel, the ferries are hooped.

There’s evidence that we may have already reached that point. Last year, Ferries said its passenger vehicle numbers had hit a 20-year low and the overall number of passengers was continuing to fall as well.

I can count the number of round-trip ferry rides I’ve taken in the past year on one hand. And I used to be the type of person – back when I moved to the Island eight years ago and could get a walk-on ticket for about $10 during peak season – to go to Vancouver at least once a month for concerts or to visit friends.

I spent that first summer here visiting each Gulf island with a tent strapped to my bike rack. I pretty much had the passenger safety message memorized.

Now, if I need to go to the B.C. Interior or somewhere that would require taking my vehicle on the boat, I’m more likely to opt for a short-haul flight.

Which makes me think that B.C. Ferries should perhaps follow the lead of the airline industry in trying to maximize profits. On planes, fares are cheaper if you travel at an inconvenient time. B.C. Ferries should offer discounts on its less popular routes to help fill the boats and manage traffic flows.

This isn’t a new idea. The corporation ordered a report from the consulting firm Transportation Economics & Management Systems in 2007, which recommended time-of-day pricing. The Tyee online newspaper found the report this month through its tireless Freedom of Information requests. The consultant recommended that “premium fares” be 75 per cent higher and discount fares 25 lower than the current rates.

Of course, the Ferry Commission wouldn’t currently allow such a sharp increase on the premium end, but something along those lines is worth considering.

Another way I think B.C. Ferries could benefit by being more like airlines would be to sell booze on board. I know I’d pay $6.50 for a single-shot highball on a boat, the same as I do in the air.

By Ferries’ own account, fewer people are driving aboard and those who do know B.C.’s tough drinking and driving regulations require them to keep their blood-alcohol level low. But the ferry to Vancouver takes almost two hours, which is lots of time to let the effects of alcohol fade. Last call could be an hour before people get off the boat.

Whatever it does, B.C. Ferries is going to have to be creative if it wants to get its ridership numbers back up. The ferry is an essential service that must remain affordable.


•    •    •


On a personal note, I’ll soon be making a one-way trip on the ferry as I pack up my life here in Victoria and move to the Kootenays where, by the way, ferries are still provincially-owned (and free). I’d like to thank Black Press readers and staff for making my time working in the Island division a memorable one.

Sam Van Schie was a reporter for the Goldstream News Gazette.


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