|Freshwater Class Manly Ferry Collaroy|
The first daily service to Manly started in 1856 as part of a plan by the redoubtable entrepreneur Herbert Gilbert Smith to turn the then remote locality into a seaside resort. Ferry rides to Manly were hit and miss in the early days and frankly dangerous in rough weather. But under the management of the Port Jackson Steamship Company, operations reached maturity by the turn of the century. Paddle steamers were progressively replaced by vessels more fit for purpose and with a similar DNA to today's Freshwater Class: double ended screw propulsion, steel hulls, high forecastle to cope with heavy seas crossing the Heads, plentiful outside seating and a passenger capacity in excess 1,000.
Six were built between 1905 and 1922 (Binngarra, Burra-bra, Bellubera, Balgowlah, Barrenjoey (later renamed North Head) and Barragoola) by Morts Dock and Engineering Company. They had operating speeds of about 14 knots, sufficient to make the journey to Manly in 30 minutes. With a 15 minute turnaround at Manly and the Quay, three vessels could operate a 30 minute interval service all day, with one boat spare. More than a century later, the Freshwaters still follow the same pattern.
|Manly Ferry Bellubera, which entered service in 1910|
The current Freshwater Class vessels were introduced over six years, starting with the Freshwater in 1982, followed by the Queenscliff (1983), Narrabeen (1984) and Collaroy (1988).
Friday's newspaper reports suggest that these four vessels will be retired soon, with Transdev Sydney Ferries opting to operate three new Emerald Class catamarans to Manly at higher frequency. This means the demise of the iconic double ended, mono hull Manly Ferry may not be far away.
When decisions are taken about an iconic brand like the Manly Ferry, there are some difficult issues to assess, balancing wider tourist and heritage values with the practical need to operate an efficient public transport system.
It's a complex problem.
Leaving aside the iconic status of the Manly Ferry, even the efficiency issues are not straight forward.
Superficially it looks simple. Emerald Class boats only have a crew of three, compared to six on the Freshwaters. That's a big saving in labour costs, plus the flexibility of being able to use the same crew for Manly and inner harbour services.
There is also a massive saving in maintenance costs and fuel.
There is a logic in timing the Freshwater retirements with the planned redevelopment of wharves at Circular Quay. The Freshwaters have special terminal facilities at Jetty 3 at Circular Quay (and Manly) for loading and unloading passengers to the main and upper decks. This will not be required if the Manly run is operated by Emeralds, potentially making an extra berth available at the sorely congested Quay.
Emerald Class ferries can operate at high speed, which would enable them to compete with the Manly Fast Ferry (MFF) on speed, but this is prevented by an agreement made by the NSW Government that no MFF competitor can exceed 18 knots on the Manly route. This is a significant for Transdev - at best the trip will take 25 minutes at 18 knots, compared to 20 minutes by MFF.
Many people have raised the objection that the Emeralds don't have sufficient capacity - 400 as against 1,100 on the Freshwaters. The truth is that, other than sunny Sundays, the Freshwaters rarely reach more than 40% capacity. The operator could switch other Emeralds into the Manly runnings for these predictable peaks, increasing frequencies to four or five per hour.
The unsubsidised NRMA owned Manly Fast Ferry (arguably more beloved by Manly residents than what they disparagingly call the "slow ferry"), has been a huge success since launching in 2009. It now departs every 10 minutes in the peaks and 20 minutes off peak; and the fares are not much higher for regular users than Opal fares for the slower, less frequent Freshwaters.
But the MFF will be affected by the recent decision to change the weekly Opal fare cap. The weekly cap, which only applies to trips taken on publicly funded public transport (including Transdev Sydney Ferries, but not MFF), will be reduced to $50. This means a Manly commuter with five return trips per week will pay $28 less by catching an Emerald boat instead of the NRMA peak service. That could be a saving of more than $1,000 a year or significantly more if the journey involves a bus or train connection (also covered by the $50 cap and transfer discounts). How this impacts on MFF ridership is difficult to predict, but it may mean Transdev will start to pick up more of the commuter market, which it almost entirely lost to MFF.
Sentimental objections to the loss of the Freshwaters will be great and perhaps a compromise solution will be arrived at. Maintenance and fuel costs would be substantially reduced if the Freshwaters were converted to all electric propulsion. With current new technology, the 15 minute turnarounds would be long enough to charge the boats for each 30 minute journey.
This would not offer the efficiency gains that Transdev would achieve by retiring the Freshwaters, but the fuel and maintenance cost savings would still be significant compared to current arrangements.
The move to electric propulsion in ferry transport is sweeping the world, led by Norway as they have with electric cars. Australia needs to get on board at some stage and the Manly Ferry would be a highly visible place to start.
And if you thought the Freshwaters are already iconic, who could fail to be charmed by an all electric Manly Ferry entering Sydney Cove, silent but for a passing boat's wash slapping on the bow. It would be like the return of the steamers.
Important note: this post has been changed since it was first published on Saturday, after the author became aware of an agreement that prevents Manly Fast Ferry competitors to operate at speeds of more than 18 knots on the Manly route.