Adequate Crewing

October 20 2009
Commissioner Writes to BC Ferries:

When new federal safe crewing rules came into effect in January 2009, some vessels were required to carry more crew than previously required for a given passenger load. The Commission undertook to keep an eye on the impact on overloads, i.e. vessels sailing while leaving customers behind on the dock waiting for the next sailing.

I gather that BC Ferries’ approach, generally, has been to aim to keep crewing levels at pre-new-rules levels. This would mean operating ships under a Transport Canada licence which has a (newly) lower maximum passenger count.

Several passenger overloads were reported in the media on route 1 over the Thanksgiving weekend after one Spirit class vessel was out of action. I presume the overloads were not the result of the company choosing to crew the remaining vessels at less than the maximum crew licences. I heard a report that the company obtained a special permission from Transport Canada to carry more than the licensed maximum passenger on a least one sailing. It would be useful to understand the circumstances and reasons.

Today I learned of a sailing out of Gabriola on October 19 – the 7:45 pm – which experienced a passenger (not vehicle) overload due to an unexpectedly large group of passengers. The ship sailed leaving vehicles behind, but without the car deck full. This may have been a case of crewing to less than the highest licence level. It would be useful to understand what measures are in place to anticipate passenger surges like this.

Has BC Ferries undertaken any analysis of the passenger-overload experience since January 1 2009, especially over the peak travel period this summer? Is any data available? In a response to my enquiry some time ago, I recall that you responded that passenger (vs. vehicle) overloads are not captured in the the overload statistics which are reported quarterly. Please provide any data and analysis that is available.

November 16, 2009
BC Ferries Responds

BC Ferries responded with a presentation to the Commissioner and a four-page written explanation (a pdf file).

In summary, BC Ferries stated that for each vessel affected by the changes in the crewing regulations, it did one of one of the following:

  • lower passenger level with the same crew level where spikes in passenger demand were considered infrequent and unpredictable;
  • increase in crew level to meet a required single passenger license where demand was consistently high enough to require lift off capacity;
  • use of multiple passenger licenses to allow management of crew levels to predicted demand; or
  • future capital planning to increase or modify life-saving appliances to increase passenger levels and/or reduce crew levels.

Previous Commission Probe in 2006 on a Related Issue

Report sent to the Commission by a customer refused boarding on the last sailing of the Queen of Burnaby deporting Little River at 7:15 pm Friday July 14th 2006 (abridged, emphasis added):-

“I had a bad experience with the ferry leaving Little River (Comox) at 7:15 pm to Westview (Powell River). This was the last run on Friday July 14th 2006, peak season. I arrived at Comox 25 minutes early. Yet I and several others weren’t allowed to board the ferry. The boat left not even close to being full. This was because BC Ferries had decided they would staff the ferry at the level where only 324 people were allowed aboard.

“Ten vehicles, 2 motor bikes, and 2 walk-ons were left behind. They included a single mother who came over to Little River to drop her children off with the other parent. She was not allowed to purchase a ticket to return as the ferry had already reached capacity. A senior, who had his son with him and had purchased perishables and frozen meat, could not go over. The son got on and carried the food over on the ferry: his father, who was after the cut off point, was diabetic stayed behind and slept in the parking lot. I and another decided to tent right there as the price of hotels in peak season is something I chose not to pay. Nanaimo was too far back to go home only to return first thing in the morning.

“If the ferry had been full of course I would have been disappointed but not dismayed and angry along with the others as we watched this ferry pull away half full.

“I believe this to be a terrible mistake on behalf of BC Ferries as they are contracted to provide a service. If they do not intend to provide the staff required to fulfill the contract then maybe they should be fined or some sort of consequence.”

Commissioner’s Enquiry to BC Ferries:

The Commission received more than one inquiry about the events at Little River that night. Providing adequate capacity is an aspect of good-quality service. Why did this happen and how often does it occur? The Commission asked BC Ferries to explain.

BC Ferries’ Explanation (abridged, emphasis added):

Many of BC Ferries’ ships are licensed by Transport Canada to operate at different crewing levels, depending on the number of passengers on board. Transport Canada sets the number of crew required for a certain number of passengers mainly according to their estimate of how many crew would be required for a prompt and efficient evacuation of the ship in case of an emergency. The Queen of Burnaby which operates the Comox-Powell River route can carry a maximum of 659 passengers, provided there are 25 crew (“A” Licence). The maximum load is reduced to 324 if the crew is 18 strong (“B” Licence). BC Ferries could operate the vessel with 25 crew at all times, but this would be wasteful.

This means that BC Ferries must forecast the number of passengers on each sailing and crew the ship accordingly. There are times when that forecast is wrong.

On the Powell River-Little River route, the larger crew is not needed very often. Almost 98% of sailings are crewed at the lower “B” level and just over 2% at the higher “A” level. An “overload” condition as experienced by the customer in this case (i.e. the vessel was crewed with a smaller crew and customers having to be h turned away) occurs less than 10 times a year out of 2890 sailings. On the other hand, over 100 times a year BC Ferries has provided the larger “A” crew when it turned out not to be required and the “B” crew would have been adequate.

Commissioner’s Comment:

The Commission estimates that fares on the route would have to be about 25% higher if BC Ferries crewed the Queen of Burnaby at the higher level all the time to eliminate all risk of an overload due to under-crewing relative to the passenger demand. We have no indication that BC Ferries deliberately under-crews its ships for the expected number of passengers. Accordingly the Commission’s inclination is to take the view “well, it’s unfortunate, but sometimes things like this do happen” as a result of the uncertainties in projecting how many people will want to ride a particular sailing.

Customer’s Reaction to the Above:

I certainly understand the difficulty it must be to plan staffing to the Little River to Powell River run. I also understand the points made as far as staffing and the cost of that. It does not seem much a price to pay, missing the rare ferry, when you look at it in that light. However, I have some thoughts that maybe helpful for this particular run in the future.

This ferry really serves Powell River and as well Texada Island. It maybe helpful if B.C Ferries took an interest in the events and happenings in the smaller communities it serves in order to serve them better. If they do they blew it that night. On that particular day and that weekend Texada was having a large music festival. I may be a consideration to fully staff this run especially on a Friday night when there will obviously be more traffic, and in peak season to boot.

There is more than just a ferry business here. The towns tourism can be affected. Money is lost because of staffing shortages and alike. The other difficulty I have a problem with is the schedule itself. Living in Nanaimo it will now not be possible to catch the ferry on these occasions. I get of work at 5pm in the afternoon and like that day head straight up there be more than one half hour early and still miss the boat. Can I ask if it is possible to make the last run later? Maybe on those occasions someone like myself can at least have a chance of making the ferry. Can I book, or reserve this run?

The demographics of Powell River have changed with many of the families moving away leaving family behind, in my case aging parents. I would be devastated if I watched the ferry pull away in a case of family emergency. I only ask that this be explored more to minimize the events of last summer which I see as poor planning. Remember the last run is at 7:15 not very late and not possible for many to make it up there on the last run on those occasions.

BC Ferries Response to the customer’s suggestions above (May 16, 2007):

  1. Local events in Powell River and on Texada Island – BC Ferries makes a concerted effort in soliciting information about upcoming and special community events. The operations team in Comox (Little River) meet regularly with the local Ferry Advisory Committees (FACs) and request information on special events at each of the meetings. Generally, the membership of the FACs includes not only residents, but businesses including local tourism. In addition, the company encourages tickets agents and other staff to forward any community event information. As you note, it is in our best interest to understand our customer’s travel needs.
  2. Offer later sailings – BC Ferries has not received a request from the community or the FACs regarding extending the last sailing of the day. Currently the operating day, number of round trips to be delivered and hours of operations are all specified by the Province in the Coastal Ferry Services Contract (CFSC). BC Ferries would consider any request to change schedules that was supported by the community; however, it would require approval from the Province. For your information, the CFSC is currently being updated by the Province and will be finalized by June 30, 2007 for the next performance term (April 1, 2008 to March 31, 2012) and will once again specify the service levels to be provided.
  3. Strong>Reservations – BC Ferries has recently reviewed implementing reservations between Comox and Powell River. There are two concerns:
    • First, the Comox/Sunshine Coast/Powell River area is served by three routes that are interdependent: Route 17 (Comox to Powell River), Route 7 (Earls Cove to Saltery Bay) and Route 3 (Langdale to Horseshoe Bay). Customers traveling on Route 7 have an expectation that there will be connecting sailings to these other routes, but the Route 7 vessel has difficulty meeting the current schedule. Implementing reservations would create higher expectations of guaranteed passage for each leg of the journey.
    • Second, based on the limited number of overloaded sailings, the increase in revenue would be minimal with costs incurred associated with implementing reservations.At this time, the recommendation is to delay implementing reservations on Route 17 until the on-time performance and schedule dependencies are resolved on Route 7.