BC Ferries

There needs to be a better solution to the BC Ferries routes between Vancouver and Vancouver Island

Like many others, I live in the Lower Mainland while most of my family lives on Vancouver Island. There was a time when I used to travel on the BC Ferries between Horseshoe Bay (Vancouver) and Departure Bay (Nanaimo) weekly. However, now that I have a family of my own I hate to admit that I rarely cross the Strait to visit my family. It is not because I don’t like visiting my family, just that I HATE traveling on BC Ferries and I can’t afford to fly. This is a very strong statement and in order to understand how it got to this point I decided to examine the issue.

The Problem

BC Ferries, specifically the Horseshoe Bay – Departure Bay route, is an extremely poorly managed and dysfunctional operation.

I have often stated that a grade 3 class could probably do a better job of managing the operations. Anyone who has ever attempted to travel from Vancouver to Nanaimo on a long weekend, or in the summer, will understand and probably agree with my bold statement. The question is WHY?

The Evidence

You can’t make a statement like that and not back it up with evidence. Here are a few reasons why I dislike the BC Ferries (specifically the Horseshoe Bay – Departure Bay route):

  • The Reservation System: For an additional cost, you can reserve a spot on an upcoming ferry. Keep in mind that you must arrive at the ferry terminal between 30-60 minutes before the SCHEDULED sailing or your reservation will not be honoured. Therefore, you want to give yourself lots of time to get to the North Shore in case of traffic on the bridge so you can pull off to the side of the road and wait for your reservation window to open. If the ferry is 30 minutes late you now have to arrive 60-90 minutes before the ferry actually leaves which means you paid a lot of money to sit in line and wait an hour.
    NOTE: The reservations for some long weekends can sell out a month or longer before the sailing. I often don’t like committing to the trip until a few days before as it is about a $275.00 return trip (without a reservation) for my family which is barely worth a long weekend visit, especially if someone is sick. For this reason I try not to visit family on long weekends or holidays but sometimes it can’t be helped.
    THE FEE: The fee is a tiered system which can save you money if you plan your trip several days in advance.
    • $10.00 reservation fee is applied to bookings more than 7 days in advance
    • $17.00 reservation fee is applied to bookings up to 7 days in advance
    • $21.00 reservation fee is applied to bookings made for same day travel
    • $5.00 change fee is incurred each time you make a change
  • Purchasing the Ticket: You can ONLY purchase a ticket at the terminal. Many people have trying to convince me that the reservation system works and that it is comparable to the airport where it is reservation system only. Here are my problems with that comparison:
    • Airlines pre-sell tickets online. BC Ferries Does not. You do not pay an extra reservation fee to allow you to jump the queue at the airport and buy a ticket. Could you imagine if the airlines operated like BC ferries? Why can’t you purchase a ticket before you get to the ferry?
    • Airlines don’t stop you from entering the terminal 60 minutes before scheduled departure. If you arrive before your reservation time you should not be turned away or your reservation forfeited!
    • Have all the ticket booths open! The ticket booth is the only place to purchase your ticket. There are several booths at the terminal but very rarely have I ever seen all of them open at the same time.
    • Provide Facilities for passengers on both sides of ticket booth. If BC Ferries can’t provide a ticket, they should atleast provide toilets, water, snacks, parking, etc. outside the terminal for walk-ons. If car reservations aren’t honoured more than 60 minutes before scheduled sailing, there should be a safe place to park with facilities before the ticket booth.
  • The Wait: A 1-sailing wait is roughly 2.5 hours. It is not uncommon for there to be a 2-3 sailing wait. You do the math! Yep, that can easily be 7.5 hours. Sure this might not be bad if you could get out and go for a 3-hour hike in the beautiful mountains but no, not the case. The terminal can’t handle this amount of traffic so the ticket booth closes and they stop selling tickets after the first ferry is completely sold out. This leaves you in a parking lot far in the middle of nowhere without any facilities while you wait to purchase your ticket. Once you do get a ticket you line up on the other side and wait for the next ferry to leave so they can move your car again. Therefore, someone has to be with the car 30 minutes before each sailing.
    PERSONAL EXPERIENCE: It is Friday afternoon of a long weekend. The reservations sold out weeks ago and it was just decided yesterday we are going across. We pick the kids up from school and arrive at the terminal at 3:30 aiming for the 5:45 ferry. There is 1 extra sailing at 7:30pm (30 minutes before the 8:00). After 10 minutes of waiting we finally talk to someone who asks if we have a reservation. Since we don’t we are told to wait in a long line. After 10 minutes the ticket booths open and cars slowly start moving forward. Finally, after 60 minutes of waiting to buy a ticket we finally arrive at the ticket booth where we are told there is a possible sailing wait and we will probably be on the 7:30. We pull into our lane in the terminal and after another 15 minutes cars stop arriving in our lane which means they have stopped ticket sails. I run to the village to buy dinner for the family as everyone else stays with the car incase we get one. As the 5:45 gets loaded our car moves but we don’t make the ferry. We are now in a new spot closer to the village and we have another 2 hours to wait. But wait, due to heavy traffic, the 7:30 ferry doesn’t leave until almost 7:50 which gets us to Nanaimo It basically took us 7 hours to travel the 60 km across the Georgia Strait (50km from Tsawwassen to Crofton).
    The poor people who arrived at 5:45 probably didn’t even leave until 10:45 if they made the ferry at all. The 8:00 sailing in this case would have left late and not filled simply because the tickets can’t get sold fast enough and the ferry is already behind. Everyone left behind will be on the 10:40 which will probably be 30-45 minutes late. A perfect example of a simple scheduling problem.

    Assured Loading Tickets (ALT): BC Ferries have had assured loading since long before I moved to the Island in 1994. The difference is that back then it wasn’t a scam. You could purchase a book of 10 for a reasonable price. You were essentially paying for 10 tickets upfront and the tickets didn’t expire. That is far different from the system today. You still must purchase 10 at a time. The cost of a car and driver today is $74.70. Plus you are charged an additional $80.30 convenience fee for a total of $155.00! The convenience fee is more than double the initial cost. Plus the tickets expire after 2 years, at which time you have the option of using the unused credit to purchase another 10 tickets at the new rate. It is so expensive that it truly is only available for large corporations or wealthy families. It doesn’t even make sense financially for small businesses’ such as my husband’s. What a joke!
  • The cost: As I mentioned before, it costs us roughly $275.00 return. It costs almost $60 for the car alone. BC Ferries allow children 0-4 years to travel for free which is great but mine are ages 9, 12, and 14. Children between 5-11 years get a discounted rate of just under $8.60. However, once you are 12 years old you are considered an adult and must pay the full $17.20! That’s right, you can’t drive , you can’t stay home alone, with your siblings, you can barely ride a bus unsupervised, but according to BC Ferries you are old enough to ride a 2.5 hour ferry without parental guidance. NOTE: If you actually try to send your child on the ferry alone without an adult, you are sometimes treated as though you are an unfit parent for allowing your child to ride unaccompanied on the ferry. My kids are quite independent and I trust them but not all 12 year olds are ready for this responsibility. I take full advantage of this opportunity though for sending the kids across to visit family.
  • The workers: Very few people working at the BC Ferries (Horseshoe Bay Ferry Terminal) know what is going on!
    • Terminal Attendants: The first people you see at Horseshoe Bay are standing under the well-marked signs that state which lines are for which ferries. They give you a coloured piece of paper and direct you to an appropriate line. They usually tell you to go in the shorted line which is usually where we are headed anyway. They do not know which ferry you will be on and recommend that next time you make a reservation. In Departure Bay they have to close down the entire highway into Nanaimo as they use it as their overflow parking lot. However, there is nowhere else go so I am guessing that without these people “guiding” cars I think they could figure it out. Think of how much BC Ferries would save if they could use signs or something to guide passengers.
    • Ticket Booth Agents: The are the people selling the tickets, however, they cannot tell you if the ferry is full. You are better off monitoring the website.
    • The staff onboard: The staff are usually busy doing their jobs. I try not to interact too much with them.
    • The Chief Steward: It’s not often but sometimes I have a question about schedules, fares, or Assured Loading Tickets. I have learned that if the Chief Steward’s office is open, they often don’t have any information about the ferry operations and I am guided to the website. Shouldn’t thins person know what is on the website? Shouldn’t they have the knowledge and tools to assist passengers? In my experience… No.
  • Traffic between the routes is not equal: The majority of traffic, especially weekend traffic, tends to go one way. For instance, it is not uncommon on a Sunday afternoon to have a 2 sailing wait from Nanaimo while the vessels leaving Vancouver are only half full. It is not cost effective to run more ferries and it is providing a negative experience for the majority of travellers trying to get home.
  • No passengers on the bottom deck: All passengers on the bottom deck are required to leave their vehicle during the voyage for safety reasons. I understand that it could be dangerous if the ferry sinks and I am trapped below. However, it angers me that it is not my choice. This is especially frustrating when you have sleeping children who just waited 5 hours at the terminal to board a vessel at 8:00 which is late and not scheduled to arrive until 11:00. All the passengers on the top deck get to stay in their vehicles but if you are on the bottom you are herded upstairs. You get the added benefit of having cranky, over-tired children. Yay!
  • BC Ferries is NOT pet friendly: I didn’t learn this until we got our dog last year. If traveling with pets “it is recommended to make a reservation”. Without a reservation you are usually on the bottom deck and although your pet can stay in the car, you cannot. Instead, on the upper car deck they have 1 or 2 cold metal rooms large enough for 1 or 2 dogs. There is a metal kennel that you may put your pet in if you need to use the facilities upstairs. However, you must bring your own locking mechanism and ensure your animal cannot harm others if you leave them unattended. If you stay, there is a metal bench for you to sit with your pet. The rooms are equipped with heaters, a water hose, and sometimes poop bags and paper towel. There are no beverages or vending machines on the car deck so a coffee is out of the question unless you leave your dog in the kennel or the car.
  • Ferries don’t run in wind storms: If there is a wind/snow storm, ferries are cancelled and people are left without any means of getting between Vancouver and Vancouver Island. With the technology we have available today, this should not happen.

A Solution

I believe that it is pointless to complain unless you have a better solution. There are ways to improve the operations of the BC Ferries but due to increasing traffic, the best solution is to find and different solution! The existing model no longer works. Below are my suggestions both short and long term:

  • Replace the Reservation System with Online Ticket Sales: Airlines have been doin this for years! Don’t charge an extra fee to purchase tickets ahead of time! Tickets can still be purchased at the terminal for tourists and others who may not frequent the ferries, but the majority of passengers should be able to determine which ferry they will be on before they leave their house! This will remove the lengthy line ups before the ticket booths and reduce the overhead as BC Ferries will not need to hire as many attendants to manage the “parking lot” outside the ticket booth. Instead of having 1 booth specifically for reservations, have that 1 booth for ticket sales and the remaining booths are “checking in” vehicles.
  • Rates: Have incentives to encourage people to travel in off-peak times all year round! The cost of the ferry increases each year and as families are growing they find themselves not being able to afford to travel to Vancouver Island. It is supposed to be an extension of Hwy 1 and it is considered an essential service. It shouldn’t be available only to those who can afford it. A few incentive ideas:
    • Have a family rate: Have an incentive for families to ride the ferry. It is so expensive right now that families like mine are deterred from visiting Vancouver Island. Instead, BC Ferries should be encouraging families to come.
    • Sunrise/Sunset rates should be year-round: In the past 2 years we have taken advantage of the discounts on the first and last sailings. It may only save us $30.00 but that $60.00 savings was the only reason we considered going to Vancouver Island to visit.
    • Extend the age of child fare or have student discounts: Children should be 5-15 years old. By 16, they are old enough to drive a vehicle and are old enough to be traveling without parents. At the very least, there should be student discounts available.
  • Build a Tunnel!: Have an alternative method for crossing the Georgia Strait. This will remove pressure from the BC Ferries which clearly can’t handle the existing traffic. The population is increasing and the amount of traffic is only going to increase with time. A bridge is not a viable solution as there is so much traffic on the water. Although it will take years to build there are many long-term benefits:
    • Job Opportunity: It will create jobs for many people during the several years of construction and even for the maintenance once it’s built.
    • Environmental Impact: Since it will be dug under the ocean, it will not impact any of the animals in the ocean. It will also decrease the ferry traffic which will reduce the amount of fuel used by the ferries dramatically.
    • Time Efficiency: Once built, a 3-9 hour commute could be reduced to 30 minutes. It will be accessible 24 hours a day and increase the flow of traffic both on and off Vancouver Island. Traffic travelling one way will not impact traffic going the opposite direction.
    • Weather: The tunnel will not be impacted by storms.
    • Cost: A toll system could be easily implemented to help recover costs and pay for ongoing maintenance. Instead of paying per person, there would be a fee per vehicle. Individuals will be encouraged to register their vehicles for quick and efficient invoicing and frequent commuters could apply for discounts. Out of province tourists could be charged a higher rate for using our infrastructure but it would still be cheaper than the BC Ferries.
    • Impact on BC Ferries: BC Ferries would still have routes to accommodate commercial drivers and tourists who enjoy the experience of riding a ferry. The traffic will be manageable and they will be able to run a more efficient operation.

There are so many reasons why I would love to see Elon Musk’s Boring Company take interest in a project like this one. Everyone who travels on the BC Ferries between Vancouver and Vancouver Island knows that something needs to change. Purchasing more ships is not the solution. The model doesn’t work and we need to come up with a new plan sooner than later!

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