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Wednesday, 25 April 2018

New Wharf at Birchgrove

The latest ferry terminal constructed under the NSW Roads and Maritime Service (RMS) Wharf Upgrade Program is at Birchgrove on the Cockatoo Island line.

I had my doubts about the project's priority, given the low ridership from Birchgrove and higher priorities elsewhere, like Watsons Bay. This is compounded by the lack of landside disability access, which is the responsibility of Inner West Council. On the face of it, the old practice of simply replacing timber piles from time to time for the old stepped wharf would probably have been a better use of taxpayer funds.

But it is built now and was re-opened for use yesterday.

To its credit, RMS is learning from previous upgrades and making innovations to overcome shortcomings evident in earlier projects. An earlier post on this blog describes the improvements at Milsons Point. 

The striking innovation at Birchgrove is the fender design. A fender acts as a cushion between the ferry and the pontoon to avoid damage to either the wharf or vessel when a ferry berths. The image below shows vertical fenders at Balmain East wharf, which was rebuilt by RMS in 2015.

The problem with this design is the fenders can be an obstacle in themselves making it tricky for a catamaran ferry to avoid clipping them. The wide gap between the vessel and pontoon also pose a risk for children falling into the water. It does happen!

RMS has tackled the problem at Birchgrove by modifying the shape of the vertical fenders and adding "whalers" to the fender system. Whalers are horizontal timber beams which are connected at each end to vertical fenders. The shape of the vertical fenders are also modified to provide a rounded, smooth surface. 

The end result is that the berthing face is more or less a straight line and there is very little gap between the boat and pontoon if there is good alignment between the pontoon deck and the vessel freeboard. This is clear from the image below showing a First Fleet class ferry berthing yesterday at Birchgrove.

While crowding is not an issue at Birchgrove, the pontoon layout looks better designed than other similar sized pontoons for passenger egress.  Seating is further away from the gangway area, so disembarking passengers can exit without interference.

Early days, but I give Birchgrove wharf a thumbs up!   


Monday, 26 March 2018

Mixed feelings about the new ferry service to Sydney Fish Markets

A new Barangaroo - Fish Market service, operated by Captain Cook Cruises, started last Saturday. The plan is to run on week-ends and Public Holidays, but not week-days.

The Sydney Fish Markets say they've had feedback for years that customers want to travel there by ferry. That maybe so, but where are they coming from? The Fish Markets can already be reached by the Inner West Light Rail, which connects well with the train network at Central Station. Not too many residents will find a ferry line to the Fish Markets which starts at Barangaroo to be a better option than the Light Rail. And it would be quicker for tourists starting from the western or southern end of Darling Harbour to walk.
Route followed by Fish Markets Ferry from King Street Wharf Darling Harbour 

I gave the Fish Market ferry a trial on Saturday afternoon. It was just as well I was early for the 2.05 pm departure, because my ferry was combined with the White Bay cruise ship service and left ten minutes early at 1.55 pm. 

With RMS imposed speed limits of 8 knots for most of the journey and just 4 knots "under" the Glebe Island Bridge and in Blackwattle Bay, the journey took 20 minutes. 

I'm guessing it could be 15 minutes without the diversion to White Bay. But even 15 minutes is longish, compared to the 23 minute walk to the Fish Markets from King Street Wharf via Pyrmont Bridge Road. 

Cost is an issue too. The fare is $9 one way. Opal Pay is available, but like other non regulated ferries, users of Opal Pay do not get the usual Opal card benefits like a daily cap or transfer discount.  

And then there is the timetable. It is by no means clockface and does not co-ordinate with the Sydney Ferries F4 service to Circular Quay.

On the bright side, the journey provides a different perspective on this side of Sydney and there will be those who enjoy the experience. But apparently not that many because, according to the ticket seller, I was the third passenger for the day when Sydney's weather was at its gleaming, sparkling best.

I have commented in a previous post about the need to better integrate non regulated ferry services into Sydney's public transport network. Timed transfers and seamless integration of fares is part of this task. It hasn't happened yet and without it the Fish Market line looks unlikely to be a winner.


Friday, 2 March 2018

The case for simplifying Sydney's ferry network

Sydney’s waterborne transport network is growing. Commuters on the Manly Fast Ferry now enjoy a service every 10 minutes in the peaks and 20 minutes off peak. Captain Cook Cruises have extended their commuter offerings to Watsons Bay and now run regular timetabled services to the International Convention Centre and White Bay plus direct trips between Darling Harbour and Manly.

Services under the subsidised Sydney Ferries’ contract have also expanded with higher frequencies for Parramatta River runs and a more regular Eastern Suburbs timetable. Passenger comfort and convenience have lifted with six new Emerald Class ferries joining the fleet and a new terminal at Barangaroo. Redevelopment of Circular Quay is imminent.

But what may not be widely appreciated is how complex the Sydney ferry system has become. The complexity is partly due to Sydney’s diverse maritime environment. This makes differences in vessel design requirements unavoidable. The form of a ferry passing by Sydney Heads to Manly is not suited for operations in the calm, shallow waters of the Parramatta River or the narrow coves of the inner harbour. The problem is compounded by past ad hoc decisions on wharf infrastructure, network design and fleet replacement. There has also been a somewhat laissez faire approach to approving non regulated services.

Complexity has serious consequences. It has led to a poor fit between the design of vessels and wharves so passenger exchange is slow and needlessly adds time to journeys. Complexity makes operations more expensive with the cost ultimately borne by taxpayers who pay for operator subsidies. And Sydney Cove has become dangerously congested and is sorely in need of de-cluttering.

Above all, it is confusing and inconvenient for passengers. Your Opal card works on some trips but not others and there is no guarantee of a convenient bus connection or ferry to ferry transfer. It can be plain hard to get to where you need to go at a time that suits you.

Back in the 1970’s, engineers tackled the problem of complexity in another field of technology. Computers were becoming so complex that it was no longer practical for a person or single team to quickly build a complete system. To overcome this, the overall architecture of computers started to be designed to accommodate modularity. Different parts of a computer could be built by independent teams or firms so long as they followed explicit rules for integration. We are reminded daily of this advance through the magic of smartphone apps.

Modularity in the computing industry saved money and enabled the technology to evolve quickly.

The same principles can also be applied to public transport technology. Sydney’s ferry system could be so much more efficient and more useful for passengers if its architecture was also modular.

How? In a modular ferry system, services with similar requirements for speed, freeboard (vessel deck height above water level), passenger capacity and other vessel design parameters are grouped into separate “chunks”. For the main current local operator, Harbour City Ferries, the most logical arrangement is to split its network into four modules – outer harbour (Manly); Watsons Bay/ Rose Bay; inner harbour and Parramatta River - and for this structure to be reflected in the design of the redeveloped Circular Quay.

Modularisation simplifies. The team managing and seeking to improve one module can do so without disruption to or by other modules. Instead of wharves being a “one size fits all” compromise, they can be customised to match exactly the requirements of a particular vessel class. Wharf 3 at Circular Quay is already designed especially for the Freshwater Class Manly Ferry and works very effectively in loading and unloading large numbers of passengers. But other wharves at the Quay need to be customised too. For example, Wharf 2 could be adapted for high speed catamarans with a high freeboard. If each pontoon at the Quay was tuned to a particular vessel class, passenger exchange could be sped up significantly.

Non-subsidised operators can continue under this model, but they too should comply with rules for integration. These include timetables which make it easy for passengers to transfer from one service to another and full ticket integration. The fare structure must not penalise a passenger for transferring between ferries, or from a ferry to a bus or train, in order to complete a single journey. 

To fix the congestion problem in Sydney Cove, it may also be necessary to reconfigure some routes to reduce the number of ferry lines terminating at Circular Quay.

One of the strengths of modular networks is their adaptability. Future demand is hard to predict, but a modular network can be easily extended to meet demand fluctuations over time. For ferries that may mean adding a module or increasing service frequency in an existing module. Sydney’s developing Bays Precinct, including the Fish Markets, Glebe Point and White Bay, is a logical candidate for a new module. Seamless integration with the rest of the ferry network could be accomplished with timed transfers at Barangaroo to ferries headed for Parramatta and Circular Quay. Low emission, full electric ferry systems are now operating in Europe and could be ideal for use in the Bays Precinct. Independent but integrated, the Bays Precinct services could be run by either an existing or new operator.

There is a place for multiple ferry operators on Sydney Harbour, but the time has come for proper integration under a unified, modular network plan. This should be the number one policy priority for Sydney ferries. It is then possible to turn attention to the infrastructure required to support the network, including design of a redeveloped Circular Quay.

Note: this is a longer, more technical version of a short opinion piece published in the Sydney Morning Herald on Friday 2 March 2018. For those who would like to read more about modularity in design, I strongly recommend a book by Baldwin and Clark, “Design Rules: the power of modularity”.

Wednesday, 24 January 2018

A new ferry terminal at Rhodes East?

Artists impression of the redevelopment at Rhodes East
Plans for a redevelopment of Rhodes East, including a new ferry wharf, have been released by the NSW Department of Planning and Environment. It's a 36 hectare, triangular shaped area between the Epping train line on the western edge and Concord Road to the east. The Parramatta River forms its northern boundary.

Rhodes East redevelopment plan map (source NSW Department of Environment and Planning)
The plan is for high density living, with 3,600 dwellings and a population of 8,225 residents. That's 22,900 people per square km, which is more than Pyrmont, currently Australia's densest suburb. It obviously needs public transport, but Rhodes station on the Epping train line is bit of a hike from the northern end of the development - about 900 metres - and there appear to be no plans to add another station further up the line. 

Some of the transport needs are proposed to be met by adding a wharf to the Parramatta River ferry route at Rhodes East.

Likely lines of approach of vessels to Rhodes East Wharf
The new stop replaces an earlier proposal to locate the wharf just west of the railway bridge at Mill Park.  I am not a fan of the Mill Park site, as a previous post explains. The line of approach for vessels travelling between Meadowbank and Mill Park is awkward; it is at the"quiet" end of Rhodes and the long ramp required to reach the navigation channel would create a significant barrier for rowers.

Rhodes East is a much better option. The line of approach for ferries to Meadowbank is more favourable and the population density planned for the area adjacent to the wharf will be significant, including retail development. There may still be an issue for rowers as the river depth is shallow close to the shore, but perhaps the ramp will not need to be quite as long as the Mill Park proposal. As it is a good distance from bridges, visibility will be better. 

Taking into account the rapid expansion of Rhodes and the nearby Sydney Olympic Park/ Wentworth Point precincts, and the NSW Government's plans for light rail projects, it is timely to reconsider the overall design of the Parramatta River ferry route.

The corridor from Wentworth Point (1) to Parramatta has never been a happy one for ferries. The river narrows west of Rydalmere and options for ferries to pass each other are limited. This makes a high frequency service impossible. On top of this, a bus replacement service is required at very low tides. 

The journey time by RiverCat from Wentworth Point to Parramatta is 30 minutes which is hardly acceptable for a distance of only 6.5 km as the crow flies. 

Last October, the NSW Government announced its preferred route for the Parramatta Light Rail Stage 2. It starts at Sydney Olympic Park, heads north to Wentworth Point, crosses the River and connects the growing suburbs of Ermington and Melrose Park before linking in with the Parramatta Light Rail Stage 1 line.
Proposed route of Stage 1 and Stage 2 Parramatta Light Rail (source: Transport for NSW)
As the proposed Light Rail stop at Wentworth Point is less than 200 metres from the ferry wharf, it makes eminent sense to terminate the Parramatta River ferry line at Wentworth Point. Passengers could conveniently transfer between the light rail and ferry services.

This would make a big saving in ferry operating costs, without diminishing mobility. The round trip from Wentworth Point to Parramatta is one hour by ferry. Eliminating this cycle would make a significant saving in resources, more efficiently utilised on improving the more economically sustainable service between Wentworth Point and Sydney CBD. 

So yes, a new wharf at Rhodes East is a good idea, but let's re-consider the design of the River ferry network in the context of other public transport plans for the area. There is little value, and significant cost, in having two modes operate the same corridor between Wentworth Point and Parramatta. In this case, a high frequency light rail service is a far better option than the RiverCat.

(1) The wharf at Wentworth Point is officially called "Sydney Olympic Park", a geographic misnomer which probably stems from excessive enthusiasm surrounding Sydney 2000.


Friday, 15 December 2017

Manly Fast Ferry and the Opal card

There is much that's admirable about Manly Fast Ferries:
  • as far as I know, the company attracts no Government subsidy;
  • peak services run at 10 minute intervals and every 20 minutes off peak. This is a more frequent ferry service than any other route on Sydney Harbour;
  • journey time is 18 minutes, compared to 30 minutes on the "slow ferry" - the iconic double ended Manly ferry operated by Harbour City Ferries under the Sydney Ferries public transport contract;
  • fares are generally cheaper than the Opal card fare on the slow ferry - $6.99 for peak services compared to the slow ferry Opal fare of $7.35; and
  • daily patronage is 11,000 (all eight routes operated by Harbour City Ferries carry an average of 43,000 passengers daily).
What was missing was fare integration. It's inconvenient for passengers to use different ticketing systems for different operators or different modes. And passengers should not be penalised for having to transfer to a bus or train to complete their journey.

So when it was announced that the Opal card would be recognised on the Manly Fast Ferry from Sunday 17 December, many passengers were probably quite excited. Unfortunately, the reality is not what they might be expecting:
  • the adult fare is $8.70, $1.71 more than it is for holders of the existing Manly Fast Ferry Smartcard travelling on a peak service;
  • travel on the Manly Fast Ferry is not recognised for the daily travel cap of $15.40 or the weekly or Sunday caps;
  • none of the other Opal "perks" apply - transfer discount of $2 and Opal concession fares.
If a passenger doesn't have a Manly Fast Ferry smartcard and they are running late, yes they may use their Opal card. But otherwise, who would?

It is quite understandable that Manly Fast Ferries would seek to protect its revenue base. It would not, for example, wish to forego revenue lost through the daily or weekly caps, or transfer discounts. 

But given the quality of public transport provided by Manly Fast Ferries, at no cost to the taxpayer, one would have thought that a small compensatory payment could be made by Transport for NSW to MFF. This would cover any revenue loss caused by offering Fast Ferry passengers the usual benefits enjoyed by Opalcard users. The benefits need not extend to the $2.60 Sunday cap or $2.50 Gold Opal daily cap, which are excessive perks that Sydneysiders need to be weaned off at some point.


Sunday, 10 December 2017

So much data, so little information

There is some information about public transport networks which most us would expect to be freely available. Patronage[1], which is the number of passenger journeys on a network over a period of time, usually monthly and annually, is an example of this type of information.

It’s not just the absolute number that’s important, but also the trend over time. What is the growth in patronage over 10 years? Or is it declining? How does growth on one mode compare with others? Does the growth vary between lines? Is the growth in peak periods or off peak?

You might assume that patronage in New South Wales is nothing more than a count of Opal card tap ons or ticket sales, but this was never the case and it’s not now. As well as Opal tap ons, patronage includes an estimate of non-ticketed journeys, untapped school student travel and integrated ticketing special event travel.

Sydney Ferries’ patronage figures used to be made available by a part of Transport for NSW known as the Bureau of Transport Statistics or BTS. BTS published a lot of information on its website about Sydney Ferries, including monthly patronage by service area (Manly, Inner Harbour and Parramatta River) going back six or seven years. It also released data from a seven day census taken twice a year of passenger boardings and disembarkations by wharf, service and time of day. It even provided the name of the vessel and its capacity, so if you knew what you were doing, you could estimate capacity utilisation by service.

Summaries of the ferry census were produced by the BTS, showing trends in passenger loadings by time of day, individual routes and wharves.

I liked dealing with the BTS. I was never in doubt that they were on the side of transparency, high standards and the pursuit of knowledge. 

The BTS was restructured in 2016 into Transport Performance and Analytics (TPA). The old was swept away with promises that even better information would be released, thanks to the higher quality Opal data now available. And a new website, Open Data, was created to make it easier for advanced users to download Opal and a range of information from other “big data” sources.

So where does that leave us with ferry patronage? There is a data visualisation on the TPA website called “Historical Patronage Counts”, which shows NSW patronage by mode and financial year, back to 2010-11. The 2016-17 count for ferries is 16.009 million, up from 15.410 million in the previous year. The explanatory notes inform that ferry patronage includes Opal journeys, magnetic stripe ticket validations (July 2016 only) and an estimate of non ticketed journeys. No problems there, except that the number for 2016-17 includes Newcastle ferry patronage. This amounts to about 470,000, give or take 50,000, so Sydney Ferries patronage last year was actually somewhere between 15.5 and 15.6 million, or only a little more than 2015-16.

What the heck?

After a series of polite email exchanges with someone at TPA, who describes him or herself only as “TPA Inbox Manager”, I’ve reached the conclusion that the taxpayers of New South Wales will never find out exactly what Sydney Ferries patronage was in 2016-17. It will only be published at the “top line level” - a total for Sydney Ferries and Newcastle Ferries and will remain forever incompatible with the counts for all previous years. Not only don’t we know what the patronage was precisely, but the historical patronage chart compares apples with pears. Or apples with apples plus grapes.

It could be argued that this is all just pedantry on my part. Who cares if Sydney Ferries’ patronage is 15.5 million or 15.6 million, or if Newcastle ferry numbers are lumped in from July 2016. Near enough is good enough. And anyway, TPA does provide monthly counts of Opal trips by line and fare category, which the BTS did not publish.

Even if I am a pedant, there are more serious concerns about information transparency. I naively welcomed the promise of granular level opal trip information. Rather than rely on a seven day census count, twice a year, we could now expect more accurate Opal tap data over 365 days of the year, with origin-destination pairs.

Well, it has yet to happen. The little snippets made available on the Open Data site is subject to strict privacy controls. The counts of tap ons and offs for individual wharves in 15 minute “bins” are only reported if the value is 18 or more. In practice, the vast majority of wharves have very few 15 minute bins which qualify, so the data is of little analytical value. And the latest counts available are from January 2017, almost a year ago.

I asked a planner at Transport for NSW last year if he was worried about the 20% decline in ferry commuter patronage in the AM peaks (that information used to be available from the BTS published ferry census data). “No,” he replied,“the latest Opal data shows a big turnaround. But it’s information that only TfNSW has access to”.

The news that commuter ferry patronage is growing again was of course very reassuring, although it would be good if the information was published. Then everyone can access detailed patronage data to see for themselves how demand for Sydney Ferries’ services is trending.

I miss the BTS.

[1] Americans call it ridership, which is probably a better word, but I’m Australian so I’ll stick with patronage

Sunday, 3 December 2017

New wharf at Milsons Point

Upgraded wharf at Milsons Point: view towards western landing platform
When it was announced late last year that the Milsons Point wharf was to be upgraded, many were surprised it was happening so soon after the last rebuild. It was only in 2010 that the wharf was completely rebuilt. And some people complain about a sports stadium being knocked down after 20 years!

The main reason for the 2017 upgrade was to add a second landing platform, a need that most would have thought could have been anticipated back in 2010. Milsons Point is a busy wharf both in passenger numbers and vessel berthings as it is a stop for Darling Harbour ferries, Parramatta River ferries in the AM and PM peaks and non regulated ferries and party boats. Without two landing platforms, it gets congested. And separation of the landing platforms minimises pedestrian crushes.
Plan of Milsons Point Wharf. Source: RMS Review of Environmental Factors  

The 2017 version of Milsons Point wharf opened on Sunday 26 November.

There are some good features in the design. Unlike other dual berthing wharves designed by Roads and Maritime Services (RMS) this one has two separate landing platforms, with the berth faces roughly in line with each other and separated by about 60 metres. This means if two vessels berth at the same time, neither of them need to make a time wasting reversing manouevre.

And there are other good points too. The height of the hydraulic landing platforms automatically adjust to the freeboard of the incoming vessel. Signage and indicator boards are effective and make clear which ramp passengers should use to catch the right ferry. Passenger ingress and egress is improved and passengers are able to use steps as well as ramps to exit the wharf, which should reduce pedestrian congestion. 

But for all these improvements there is still, even after a second go at building the wharf, a serious flaw - the landing platforms are too small. The new Emerald Class vessels have capacity to use two double gangways - midships and stern - which would allow for very fast loading and unloading of passengers. Unfortunately, neither of the landing platforms look big enough to allow one double gangway to be manouevred, let alone two.
Eastern landing platform of Milsons Point Wharf
This deficiency probably adds minutes to the dwell at Milsons Point when large crowds are using the wharf. On a return trip from Circular Quay, that could be an extra four or five minutes in an already tight schedule.

The NSW State Government is investing a lot in new transport infrastructure. While the new Milsons Point wharf is definitely an improvement on the 2010 version, it still falls short on that most vital of criteria, the speed of passenger exchange. We really should expect better.