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Thursday, 2 November 2017

More on the Sydney Ferry Timetable Changes

There is an issue with the 26 November timetable changes which was not addressed in the previous post - the capacity of ferries to keep to time in the Darling Harbour section of the new Cross Harbour route. As previously discussed, the Cross Harbour route is a "through line", which joins Watsons Bay and Rose Bay with the Darling Harbour route via Circular Quay. 

Currently, the time allocated for the Darling Harbour route off peak is 59 minutes, from departure at Circular Quay to arrival at the Quay on return. Under the new timetable, this is reduced to 55 minutes, even though there is one additional stop - ferries will stop at Barangaroo in the inbound and outbound direction. They now stop at Barangaroo only when outbound from Circular Quay.

It may be argued that the new vessels operating the route - the Emeralds - have the extra speed and acceleration needed to shave four minutes off the journey compared to the slower First Fleeters now used. It is true the Emeralds will be faster between McMahons Point and Balmain East where there are no speed restrictions, but I'm doubtful they will always be able to complete the round trip in 55 minutes:

  • speed restrictions of 8 or 15 knots are enforced over most of the route, so in these sections the Emerald boats will not have a speed advantage;
  • there is no evidence yet that the Emerald Class is more manouevrable than the First Fleeters. They appear to me to be less manouevrable, lacking the twin rudder feature of the older vessels, so berthing the new boats at intermediate stops may actually be slower;
  • the extra stop at Barangaroo will add at least two or three minutes to the running time;
  • the new timetable has departures from Balmain East to Circular Quay and to Barangaroo scheduled only one minute apart. This creates a conflict, unless one vessel berths on the western side of the pontoon. This too will have a small delaying effect.
Taking all of these issues in combination, it is hard to envisage the ferries being able to keep to time during periods of heavy loading, especially on week-ends. As pointed out by one of my correspondents, David Caldwell, there is minimal recovery time at Circular Quay, so any delay on the Darling Harbour stage will have flow on effects for Watsons Bay and Rose Bay passengers.  

Monday, 16 October 2017

Sydney Ferry Timetable Changes Reviewed

Changes to the Sydney Ferry timetable were announced yesterday and take effect from Sunday 26 November. 

The main changes affect the existing Eastern Suburbs and Darling Harbour routes. An announcement by the NSW Government earlier in the year foreshadowed the main modifications, but yesterday's release provides all the details

  • Services to Darling Point and Double Bay will become an entirely separate route from the Watsons Bay/Rose Bay line. Under the current timetable, Darling Point is only serviced week-days in the AM and PM peaks. Double Bay has some off peak services, but they are irregular at best. The new timetable will give Darling Point and Double Bay passengers a 60 minute interval service in the off peak, seven days a week.
  • Watsons Bay and Rose Bay will become stops on a "through line" to be known as the Cross Harbour route. It merges Watson Bay and Rose Bay services with the existing Darling Harbour route. Passengers from Watsons Bay or Rose Bay will be able to travel on the same vessel to Darling Harbour, via Circular Quay, Milsons Point, McMahons Point and Balmain East. The new route terminates at its western end at Pyrmont Bay. Barangaroo becomes an intermediate stop rather than a terminus. Watsons Bay remains an "off peak only" stop with Captain Cook cruises continuing to provide a commuter peak service to this wharf.
  • A second stopping pattern will operate on week-ends between Circular Quay and Darling Harbour, with stops at Milsons Point, Barangaroo and Pyrmont Bay only. This pattern will operate at 30 minute intervals, lifting the frequency of services between CQ and Barangaroo to 15 minutes on week-ends (currently 20 minutes).
  • Cockatoo Island formally becomes a separate route from the Parramatta line. Late evening services to Balmain (Thames Street), Birchgrove, Greenwich and Woolwich will no longer be add ons to the Parramatta River runs.


Overall, the changes are moving Sydney's ferry network in a positive direction. There is clearly a strategy to create a more legible timetable with greater effort to achieve consistent clock-face scheduling. This has partly been accomplished by the acquisition of new Inner Harbour Emerald Class ferries, which provide more flexibility in the runnings.

This improvement is highlighted by the off peak Rose Bay timetable. Passengers from Rose Bay should be pleased to see that off peak sailings in the direction of Circular Quay
will always now depart at 29 and 59 minutes past the hour, reducing to a 60 minute interval (29 minutes past the hour) after 19:29. Simple and easy to remember.

But there is room for improvement.

Through lining is good in principle, but the combination of Watsons Bay and Darling Harbour is not ideal as the two routes have different demand profiles. This is discussed further in a previous post. Until Watsons Bay wharf is upgraded there is a risk also that delays at Watsons Bay will cause flow on punctuality issues for the Darling Harbour section of the line.

There are also some specific issues of concern revealed in the details released yesterday:

  • departures from Rose Bay in the direction of Watsons Bay are almost all scheduled one minute after departures in the direction of Circular Quay. Rose Bay is a single berth pontoon and scheduling the two so closely together will cause delays. Departures from a single berth should be at least four minutes apart. On a quick calculation, this feature will affect 113 services a week and cause vessels to sit idly off Rose Bay for a total of more than five hours every week.
  • Darling Point passengers are big winners from the new timetable, but will be affected by a curious feature. Off peak services will only stop at Darling Point in the inbound direction until 12:25 week-days and 13:25 week-ends. Outbound off peak ferries only stop there from 13:10 week-days and 14:10 week-ends. It could be argued that those who need to travel to or from Darling Point at other times can go via Double Bay first, but I'm not convinced it's necessary. The Double Bay cycle provides a five minute layover at Double Bay and a stop at Darling Point will only add two minutes to the journey.
  • Having two stopping patterns for the Darling Harbour section of the Cross Harbour route on week-ends is less than ideal. Simplicity is almost always better than complexity. I expect it will cause confusion and some lost ferry passengers.
The general progression to a more legible Sydney Ferry network is welcome. What we don't see yet, apart from the "Cross Harbour" experiment, is improved line connectivity at Circular Quay.  Why not take the periodicity a little bit further and adopt a fully integrated pulse timetable?  

Wednesday, 20 September 2017

Benefits of Regular Interval Timetables: Part 2 Efficiency

Most ferry passengers probably don't care much about efficiency. Inefficiency is usually not visible and nor are the consequences. 

But the efficient use of assets and resources, especially labour, makes a big difference to the cost of running a ferry system and impacts on the economics of new routes or service frequency on existing ones. That's why everyone should be very concerned about operational efficiency.

From the operator's perspective, a key efficiency measure is the ratio between crew roster hours and ferry service hours. It is desirable in each roster line to increase the time crews spend driving vessels on timetabled services and reduce time in non revenue earning activities.  Some non revenue earning hours are essential, including mandatory crib (meal) breaks, positioning trips and training and safety drills, but minimising "sitting around" time can make significant savings for the operator and the taxpayers who subsidise the operator.

So how does a timetable impact on efficiency?

If a timetable follows an irregular pattern, and vessels can return to a hub at any time, long periods of down time in excess of mandatory crib breaks are almost inevitable. It is unlikely that the period between finishing a run before a crib break or restarting after the break will correspond exactly to the mandatory time allowed for breaks. 

By contrast, a regular interval timetable is modular.  In a 30 minute interval network, vessels return to a hub a few minutes before the hour and half hour and depart a few minutes after the hour and half hour. This means crib breaks can always occur in neat 30 or 60 minute blocks with minimal wastage.

This level of modularity is only possible in a regular interval timetable.

Further efficiency improvement can be made by stopping the practice of resting vessels when the crew take a crib break. If crews returning from a crib break are assigned to whatever vessel needs crewing, then vessels would achieve higher utilisation rates and reduce requirements for berthing capacity at busy terminals like Circular Quay.

The upside for passengers is that all of these efficiency gains would make expansion of the ferry network more attractive to Government. And that means a better customer experience.


Monday, 11 September 2017

Six Benefits of Regular Interval Timetables - Part 1 Customer Experience

What is a regular interval timetable?

It is a rail, bus or ferry timetable that operates at a fixed time interval all day - say every 30 minutes. An integrated regular interval timetable goes a step further by also ensuring passengers have a short wait time at hubs before transferring to another service or mode.

A network wide regular interval timetable was first introduced on the Netherlands rail network in 1932, but it was the Swiss Federal Railways who took it to a new level of sophistication. This happened from 1982 with the first iteration of Taktfahrplan, which loosely translates in English to "pulse timetable".

The simplified network diagram below illustrates how it works in practice:
A 30 minute regular interval timetable with connecting nodes
The example shows a two line rail network operating at 30 minute intervals. Trains on the Red Line arrive at Station F shortly before the hour and half hour. Trains on the Blue Line cross at Station F on the hour and half hour, enabling passengers from the Red Line to transfer to a Blue Line train travelling in either direction (towards Station E or H). 

The Red Line train departs Station F shortly afterwards, providing convenient connections for transferring passengers from both the Blue Line trains.

Any crossover point in the network (in this example, they occur at 15 and 45 minutes past the hour), creates opportunities for similar symmetrical transfers to other modes, such as the bus line shown connecting at Station C. 

What is unique about the Swiss approach is the importance of Taktfahrplan as a strategic driver of transport planning - convenient timetables with timed transfers at network nodes underpin the entire public transport network. They are devised 20 years in advance of implementation and help set priorities for infrastructure upgrades. Technology is not the driver, but a means to achieve a purpose, which is to improve the performance of the timetable.  

Regular interval timetables are ideally suited to urban transit ferry systems. They make ferry travel easier for customers and simplify operations, leading to lower subsidies by taxpayers. But with the notable exception of Brisbane Ferries, the concept has not been embraced in Australia. Perhaps it's because the benefits are not well understood. 

Benefit 1 - a better customer experience through simplicity and connections

Benefit 1 is really two benefits, but they are closely related. Simiplicity comes from the regularity of the timetable - the service always departs from a stop at the same minute interval every hour, so it is easy to remember the timetable. But because it is also a pulse timetable, timed connections at interchanges are also regular and consistent.

The following example shows how easy it would be to navigate across the Sydney ferry network, if it was based on these principles. 

Let's imagine you live at Elizabeth Bay and a ferry now stops at Elizabeth Bay twice an hour. The ferry departs for the downtown terminal at Circular Quay 15 minutes before and 15 minutes after the hour, every hour. In the outbound direction - towards Double Bay - it departs 12 minutes before and 18 minutes past the hour.

If you arrived at Elizabeth Bay Wharf 15 minutes before the hour, what destinations could you conveniently reach by ferry and how long would it take?

Within 15 minutes you could be at Circular Quay or any other stop on the Double Bay line.
As all ferries arrive at Circular Quay a few minutes before the hour and depart a few minutes after the hour, you would be able to transfer at the Quay to the Manly Ferry or any Inner Harbour ferry with just a short waiting time. This means that within a further 15 minutes, seven more destinations can be reached.
And in another ten minutes - 40 minutes since the journey started at Elizabeth Bay - a total of 17 destinations could be reached by ferry.  This does not include numerous other destinations through transfers to other modes at Circular Quay, Milsons Point, McMahons Point etc. 

So you can see that from two very simple principles - regular intervals and timed connections at interchange points - a ferry network can be easy to comprehend for the passenger and provide access to multiple destinations with great convenience. 

This is the first in a six part series on regular interval timetabling: Parts 2 to 6 will follow in coming weeks.     

Sunday, 6 August 2017

More thoughts on Barangaroo Ferry Terminal

It is easy to be critical of new transport infrastructure. I'm usually reluctant to do so, because there are often good reasons for compromises in a design solution which the general public are not privy to. We are not aware of all the issues that need to be taken into account by the design team.

In any case, humans are fallible and mistakes are inevitable. They can often be fixed later. The First Fleet ferries were originally designed with a single midships gangway. A stern gangway gate was added later and the midships gangway gates were more recently widened to accommodate double gangways. These improvements make passenger loading faster at floating pontoon wharves.

Much as I want to be sanguine about Sydney's latest ferry infrastructure - the new terminal at Barangaroo - there is at least one design fault which is hard to fathom. Wharf stanchions - what non mariners might call fences - are positioned so that when a First Fleet ferry berths, the stern gangway is blocked off. Passengers can only disembark or load via the midships gangway.
The stern of a First Fleet ferry berthed at Barangaroo
After October, it is planned that the new Emerald Class boats will replace First Fleeters on the Barangaroo run, but the problem will remain as the Emerald stern gangway will line up in the same position.

Normally passengers can disembark and load via the midships gangway only without causing delays. The layover is currently a relaxed seven minutes for most of the day. But it becomes a problem when there is crowding on school holiday Sundays or during special events, when the faster loading afforded by two gangways becomes essential to keep ferries on time.

And we cannot assume the scheduled layover will always be seven minutes. Future network changes may require a tighter turnaround.

How did this happen? Who knows, but when the primary purpose of a ferry wharf is to allow for the efficient and safe transfer of passengers between boat and land, you would expect that free access to both the stern and midships gangways was a number one consideration. Evidently it wasn't.

Monday, 26 June 2017

First thoughts on the Barangaroo Ferry Terminal

Disembarking passengers from a Parramatta River ferry at Barangaroo
The long awaited opening of the Barangaroo ferry terminal finally happened today, creating Sydney's second major ferry terminal (the first of course is Circular Quay). It replaces the sadly inadequate King Street Darling Harbour wharf, about 250 metres to the south. The pontoon at King Street wharf is far too small to accommodate crowds and was frankly dangerous during events like the Vivid Festival or even regular, busy Sunday afternoons.

The Barangaroo terminal comprises two wharves. For reasons unknown, the two wharves are collectively described by Transport for NSW as "the Barangaroo Wharf" (singular). Why not just call it a terminal? I plan to. For the moment, only Wharf 1 is being used, but both will be required when additional ferry services are introduced in October. 

To say the terminal is a big improvement on King Street is an understatement. It is vastly superior to either the King Street wharf or Circular Quay for crowd management. The pontoons and ramps are wide and uncluttered, allowing easy direct egress to the pedestrian concourse at Barangaroo South, without being impinged upon by crib rooms or food outlets. And it's a short five minute stroll through Wynyard Walk to Wynyard railway station for connecting train services.
Disembarking passengers can easily be separated from those waiting to board
Features not obvious to users today is the facility to insert temporary queuing barriers when required. This will allow wharf staff to maintain separation of boarding and disembarking passengers during events or busy Sundays.

The opening of Barangaroo creates opportunities that were not previously possible. Why not have ferry routes from Barangaroo to White Bay, Glebe Point and the revamped Fish Markets? And why not use this extra capacity to reduce congestion at Circular Quay by terminating River and Woolwich ferries at Barangaroo?


First run for a new Sydney Ferry Class

Passengers disembark at Barangaroo from the first Fred Hollows service
"Commodious" was a commonly used adjective for describing newly commissioned ferries in the Nineteenth Century. The Sydney Morning Herald breathlessly reported the launch of a new double ended steamer, the Wallaby, on 3 April 1879, saying it was "one of the most commodious boats of her kind constructed here".

The Herald also reported on the North Shore Ferry company's plans in 1882 "to build larger and (even) more commodious ferry steamers." Seven years later, the Company announced its order for a "commodious and swift harbour steamer...of a similar type to the Bunya Bunya". 

Over a century may have passed, but commodious and swift are also apt epithets for the latest addition to the Sydney Ferry fleet, the 35 metre catamaran Fred Hollows. It entered the runnings on the 0807 Darling Harbour service this morning and is the first new Sydney Ferry to be acquired in 16 years. Fred is the first of six boats to be acquired by the NSW Government in what will now be known as the Emerald Class.

Today was certainly a big one in Sydney's ferry history as there wasn't just a ferry launch -  the new four berth ferry terminal at Barangaroo South also opened this morning.

Customer experience

The extra 10 metres length compared to a First Fleeter makes a distinct difference. One passenger boarding at Balmain East gasped "it looks like we're catching the Manly Ferry".

Although the superstructure is evocative of the Alan Payne designed First Fleet Class (and they share the same passenger capacity - 400), the interior is far more spacious and comfortable. The two doorways on either side of the vessel should allow faster embarkation than the First Fleeters, if deckhands deploy two gangways.

The roomy interior of the Fred Hollows on its first run

And the Emerald Class is certainly swift, with a maximum speed of 24 knots. 

Passengers will also enjoy having more outside seating on the upper deck, including forward seating, a feature not available on the upper deck of First Fleeters. And in very Sydney style, there's no air conditioning. In summer windows can be opened to get the sea breeze and we wear a coat for the two months of the year when it's cold. 

There is less to like about Fred's external appearance. The straight lines of the hull don't compare well with the curves of a First Fleeter, but then aesthetics are a matter of personal taste. I'll probably get used to it.

A minor disappointment is the lack of a forward view from inside the main deck. The raised bow and outside seating obscures the view. Alan Payne was meticulous in designing the First Fleeters so that passengers inside had the best possible vision of Sydney Harbour. But this is a small quibble.

Operational considerations

Although it's the first in service, Fred Hollows is the second Emerald Class ferry built by Incat in Hobart. The first built - Catherine Hamlin - had some deficiencies, the main one being its capacity to manouevre in high winds. These were rectified in Fred Hollows, which has a bigger rudder and keel. Catherine will be similarly modified at the Harbour City Ferries Balmain Shipyard before entering service. 

It looks like Emerald Class ferries will be deployed on Watsons Bay/ Rose Bay runs, as well as Inner Harbour services (mainly Darling Harbour). They also have capability to back up the Manly Ferry in case of a breakdown. 

The benefit of a multi purpose class is that it offers the possibility of a simpler fleet configuration - perhaps the end game is a fleet of just three classes:

  • Freshwater Class (or whatever replaces it), operating Manly services;
  • RiverCats for the Parramatta River; and
  • Emerald Class for the Inner Harbour, including Watsons Bay/ Rose Bay (The First Fleeters probably have at least another 10 years life in them, so this is a long term strategy).
A previous post explains the benefits of a ferry operation minimising its vessel classes. It's a laudable goal. 

The challenge is that it is hard to build a boat which is well suited to long runs out to Watsons Bay/ Rose Bay and the shorter runs in the Inner Harbour. 

Watsons Bay and Rose Bay passengers have grown accustomed to a fast journey via the SuperCats for about 16 years, hence the requirement to retain fast ferry capacity on this route. But speed has a downside. Frictional resistance on a wetted hull means ferries travelling at 24 knots use a lot of fuel. If the Emerald Class boats are like the SuperCats, they will need to be refueled every day. That's a big cost disadvantage compared to the sedate 13 knot First Fleeters, which only refuel once a week.

Why deploy a 24 knot fast ferry in the true Inner Harbour (between Bradleys Head and Cockatoo Island), on routes where much of the distance traveled has speed restrictions of 15 knots or less? Improving the passenger loading process would achieve a better return in journey speed for the Inner Harbour routes.

But it is early days for the Emerald Class. If there is a common theme in the history of Sydney ferry fleet acquisition, it might be described as iterative. Time and experience leads to modifications and the best way of doing things just sort of unfolds over time. It will probably continue that way.