BALDREY: Ticketing overhaul a progressive move by BC Ferries

After a series of controversial moves, BC Ferries finally seems to have embarked on a significant policy change that will likely prove popular.

The beleaguered company is propelling itself into the 21st century by finally moving to a digital ticketing method. Imagine that: buying a ferry boarding ticket on a website, via your smart phone or other device.

Gone will be the days of the uncertainty surrounding a mad dash to a ferry terminal (although the new ticket system will be confined, at the start, to only the major ferry routes) only to find out there’s a two-sailing wait and the chances of you getting to your in-laws for dinner have been dashed (which may be a good thing, in some cases).

In the future – starting in 2017 if all goes as planned – ferry tickets will be purchased online like an airline ticket (virtually all airline tickets in Canada are now purchased online). You’ll even be able to buy a seat in the buffet restaurant on a ferry and book a hotel room and presumably a golf game for your trip.

In other words, BC Ferries is ever so slowly evolving into a comprehensive travel offering, at least for those travelling on its major routes.

Another potentially appealing aspect of the looming overhaul is differential ticket pricing. Travelling in off-peak times will be cheaper than boarding a ferry during peak travel times (i.e. Friday and Sunday evenings).

The ticket prices haven’t been set yet, of course, and it may very well end up that peak-time travelling may prove to be more expensive than it currently is, but that could be offset than much lower fares at other times.

BC Ferries thinks the changes will result in higher ridership and higher revenues for the company. Let’s hope so.

A big question is why it’s taken BC Ferries so long to move in this direction. It has spent billions of dollars upgrading and replacing its large fleet of vessels, but practically nothing on things like upgrading the digital side of the company.

So far, the proposed overhaul is being hailed by most of the folks who normally assail BC Ferries over all kinds of issues.

Brian Hollingshead, a co-chair of the Ferry Advisory Committee, welcomed the overhaul and hopes it eventually spreads to encompass smaller routes.

As far as I can determine, only the Opposition NDP doesn’t like the proposed new approach. Too expensive, it says (it will cost BC Ferries between $10 million and $15 million to implement the new computer system and overhaul the website) and the new way of buying tickets will cause too much confusion, according to MLA Claire Trevena, the party’s critic for BC Ferries.

The NDP’s criticism in this case is off the mark, as is so often the case when it comes to its take on BC Ferries (the party also bizarrely wants to reduce on-board catering services and gift shops, which it calls "cruise ship" amenities, even though they actually make a profit for the company).  The bruising experience of the botched fast ferries experiment seems to have left lasting scars.

Other than demanding the ferry system be run as an extension of the highway system (a proposal that would presumably require hundreds of millions of tax dollars be given to BC Ferries to attain that undefined goal) the NDP hasn’t come up with much in the way of viable alternative solutions to the challenges facing the company.

Nevertheless, BC Ferries still has some tough challenges ahead: stagnant or slumping ridership, and ever increasing fares are just two of them.  The company has also taken a hit in smaller coastal communities for reducing service on comparatively little-used ferry routes, as it struggles with its bottom line.

Another looming issue is the growing headache that is the Horseshoe Bay ferry terminal. It requires enormous changes to its docks and other infrastructure, which will cost in the neighborhood of $200 million.

You can bet when those renovations do occur, they will lead to inconvenience and disruption for many ferry users, thus resulting in more complaints against the company.

Ferry service will always be a hot-button issue in many of BC’s coastal communities. But at least, with the overhaul of the ticketing system, the company is finally trying to shuck off some of its old-school, outdated ways.

Keith Baldrey is chief political reporter for Global BC

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