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Thursday, 6 December 2018

Does a ferry service to Woolloomooloo stack up?

A proposal by residents for a ferry stop in the inner east Sydney suburb of Woolloomooloo gets a run from time to time. It came up again last week, with the Wentworth Courier reporting on a public meeting in support of a new ferry service to Andrew (Boy) Charlton Pool, on the western side of Woolloomooloo Bay.

The idea also has the backing of the nearby Art Gallery of New South Wales.

Unfortunately, the case for a new ferry stop at Boy Charlton Pool - or anywhere in Woolloomooloo Bay - is less than convincing. 

A generally accepted rule of public transport planning is that most passengers will walk up to 800 metres to a train or ferry stop. Resistance increases with obstacles such as steps or a busy road. If a ferry wharf is located at Boy Charlton Pool, the only Woolloomooloo residents to benefit will be those living in the 100 or so apartments in Lincoln Crescent. For almost everyone else, the walk to the pool is more than 800 metres and may involve crossing the four lane Cowper Wharf Road. 

Even visitors to the Art Gallery may be deterred as the walking distance from the pool to the extended Gallery is about 600 metres.

There is also the issue of how to integrate Woolloomooloo into the current ferry network. Two options are available:
  1. add a stop to the existing Double Bay line
  2. make Woolloomooloo a stand-alone line, like Taronga Zoo.
Both options are problematic. The current Double Bay line follows a reasonably direct route. Making a diversion into Woolloomooloo Bay will add significantly to the travel time of existing Double Bay, Darling Point and Garden Island passengers.
Existing Double Bay line, superimposed with a diversion to Boy Charlton Pool (in yellow) 
Option 2 is even less attractive. For the reasons already outlined, demand is likely to be tiny. Even if the wharf was located nearer to Cowper Wharf Road and the head of Woolloomooloo Bay, walking directly to Macquarie Street in the CBD would offer a competitive alternative in time than a ferry ride to Circular Quay. 

More importantly, there are simply not the berthing facilities available at Circular Quay for an additional line. The Quay struggles to accommodate the existing nine lines.

It is very understandable that residents of Woolloomooloo would like to have a ferry wharf near their doorstep. But on a scale of places suitable for ferry connection, Woolloomooloo does not rate highly.

Friday, 30 November 2018

Bus changes and ferry connections

442 Bus about to depart Balmain East Wharf: connecting ferry from CQ still on the way
It's an old, old problem that just won't go away - Sydney struggles to get bus/ferry connections right. 

It seems so simple from the point of view of the passenger. The passenger wants a reliable bus service to take him or her to the ferry wharf with just a short wait before the connecting ferry departs. And on return, after disembarking the ferry, a bus should be waiting at the wharf to complete the journey home. 

Sydney's geography means the ferry to bus connection is usually more critical than bus to ferry. The bus journey to a ferry wharf is often down a steep incline. More often than not, passengers are willing to stroll down a hill to the wharf, but are reluctant to walk back up. That's why the transfer from ferry to bus is more important. 

It is also more complicated for a passenger to mentally juggle two schedules - "Which is the best bus to catch for me to make a convenient connection with the ferry? Should I assume the bus will be on time or do I allow for an extra five or 10 minutes in case the bus is late? What the hell, I'll just walk to the wharf".

The decision is simpler when disembarking the ferry. The bus is either waiting at the wharf or it's not.

Providing passengers with what they want is not so easy. 
Part of the problem is an issue of detail - exactly how long should be scheduled for a transfer wait? 

Take the example of the new timetable for buses terminating at Balmain East Wharf, which takes effect from Sunday 2 December. The network has been simplified by operating a single line - the 442 bus - between the Queen Victoria Building and Balmain East. Daytime on week-days and Saturdays it will run at 10 minute intervals. This is in place of two lines (the 442 and 445 (Balmain East to Campsie)) which each operated at 20 minute intervals.

As a guiding principle, simpler, higher frequency networks are better. Unfortunately, though, the new timetable does not allow enough time for transfers from the ferry to the bus. The ferry from Circular Quay is scheduled to arrive at :00 and :30 minutes past the hour, with the "connecting bus" scheduled to leave at :03 and 0:33 minutes past the hour. The walk from ferry to bus stop is 105 metres, including steps, and takes between 90 seconds and two minutes for less mobile passengers. This leaves almost no buffer for a ferry delay. As the F4 ferry from Circular Quay is usually at least three minutes late (for reasons explained in an earlier post), connections will rarely be made.

This is not such a problem when the 442 bus departs at 10 minute intervals, because it won't be long before the next bus arrives. But bus frequency drops to 30 minute intervals after 8 pm, which means passengers hoping for a transfer from this time are likely to have a very long wait.

There are also some bigger strategic design issues in ferry - bus connections.

Hierarchies are important in network planning. "Hierarchy" is an ugly word, as it implies one part of the system is more important than another, but that is not what is meant. What it really means is that lines serve different functions - for example:

  • inter-suburban lines follow key transport corridors and connect major centres and 
  • local lines provide for shorter journeys including connections to the inter-suburban lines. 

Two modes of public transport serving Balmain East: 442 bus (blue line) and F4 ferry (red line)
Buses connecting to a ferry wharf should be feeder lines to the ferry. But the 442 bus is also an inter-suburban line, because it carries passengers all the way from the Balmain East wharf into Sydney's CBD. 

It tries to be both a feeder line and an inter-suburban line at the same time. 

In the commuter peaks, the 442 trip from Balmain East to QVB is scheduled to be 28 minutes. The ferry ride from Balmain East to Barangaroo - not that far from QVB - is a 5 minute journey. So for Balmain East residents, the ferry is a more convenient option. Wouldn't it better for the section of the 442 route from Gladstone Park to Balmain East wharf to be simply a dependable feeder bus line to the ferry? Better for a bus to do this well (punctually) than try to compete with the ferry for passengers travelling to the CBD.

There are many other similar cases across Sydney, including the 438 bus from Abbotsford wharf to Martin Place and the 505 bus from Woolwich wharf to Town Hall. The 438 takes up to 68 minutes in the peaks, but the ferry journey is only 26 minutes to Barangaroo or 28 minutes to Circular Quay. The ability of a bus line this long to be a reliable feeder to the ferry wharf is very doubtful.

All of this highlights the importance of viewing Sydney's public transport as an integrated system, not independent operations, and for more attention to be given to improving connections between the component parts. The bus timetable changes to be implemented this week-end suggest Sydney is still not quite there yet.

Sunday, 29 July 2018

Sydney Ferry Opal journeys up 2.5% in 2017-18 Financial Year

Opal journeys for the Sydney Ferries franchise in the financial year ending June 2018 totalled 15.326 million, up 2.5% on the previous year.

While up to date Opal journey data is accessible on the Transport for NSW website, official ferry patronage numbers for 2017-18 are not yet available. The official patronage figures are higher because patronage includes an estimate of non-ticketed journeys, untapped school student travel and integrated ticketing special event travel.

Line comparisons are difficult to make because of network changes introduced in November 2017:
  • Journeys to and from Double Bay, Darling Point and Garden Island are now on a separate line from other Eastern Suburbs stops (Watsons Bay and Rose Bay).
  • Services to Watsons Bay and Rose Bay are part of the new Cross Harbour route, a "through line" which incorporates the former Darling Harbour route.
  • The Cockatoo Island line is now formally separated from the Parramatta River line.
These changes mean year on year comparisons are not straight forward, but some trends are nevertheless clear if some of the line data is aggregated: 

Growth is strongest on the Taronga Zoo and Cross Harbour lines, with patronage increasing 12.9% and 11.8% respectively. An increase of 5.8% was achieved on the Parramatta River and Cockatoo Island lines combined.

The declines were reported for Mosman (down 7.7%), Manly (down 6.3%) and Neutral Bay (down 1.0%).

We can only speculate on what's driving the ups and downs, especially as more granular level data has not been published. Up to date counts of week-ends v. week-days, or changes in AM peak numbers, are not available, a situation I bemoaned in a post last year. 

My guess is that there are three key issues affecting demand:

  • Tourist ferry journeys are up, in line with the general upswing in Sydney tourism numbers. This is suggested by the growth on the Taronga Zoo and Cross Harbour lines, both of which are predominantly tourist routes.
  • Manly, although another tourist dominated route, is continuing to lose ground to the Manly Fast Ferry which has increased frequency in the peak and off peak in the last few years.
  • Mosman and Neutral Bay are almost exclusively non-tourist lines and they may still be suffering from the general sluggishness in commuter numbers which followed the discontinuation of periodical fares, which was mainly to the disadvantage of regular ferry riders.
It is not possible to make authoritative comments about commuter passenger trends without more detailed Opalcard data being available. But this analysis is important as the usefulness of ferries as a mode of public transport depends on how well it serves residents who need it to travel to work or meet other regular mobility needs.      

Tuesday, 12 June 2018

Making the ferry network more useful and efficient

Time and distance graph for a possible new timetable for Watsons Bay ferry
I gave a presentation at the Australian Ferry Society this month on ways to make the Sydney ferry network better connected, load passengers faster and reduce berthing congestion.  Here's a link to a youtube video which is based on the presentation.

Now is a critical time for the Sydney ferry network, with decisions imminent on the design of the Circular Quay terminal. Those decisions will have a lasting impact on the usefulness and efficiency of ferries as a mode of public transport in Sydney. The presentation canvasses some of the key issues.  

Monday, 4 June 2018

One size fits all is not the best solution for Circular Quay

There may be other transport projects in Sydney with a higher profile, but none is more important to the future of ferries than the NSW Government’s plan to rebuild Circular Quay.

Squeezed tightly into the head of a narrow 275 metre wide cove, Circular Quay is the main terminal for eight lines of the Sydney Ferry network. It’s also used by an assortment of non-subsidised ferries, water taxis, cruise boats and massive cruise ships. The importance of getting the new design right hardly needs emphasising.

There are two ways to tackle a project like this. The first is a “one size fits all” engineering solution, where the architect is not clear exactly how the finished product will be used, so designs something to work for a range of possibilities. The outcome is useable, but only after a fashion.

Jetty 3 at Circular Quay was purpose built for the Manly Ferry, but the other jetties exemplify one size fits all thinking. Boats with a range of specifications can use jetties 2, 4, 5 and 6, but safe and efficient passenger exchange is sacrificed for the sake of versatility. The wide variation in freeboard (height of a vessel’s deck above water level), vessel length and gangway gate configuration make passenger loading slow and cause delays on crowded week-ends or in peak school holiday periods.

The egress of passengers disembarking via the stern gangway of an Emerald Class ferry at Wharf 2 is impeded by disembarking passengers from the midships gangway

Try taking the ferry to Watsons Bay on a sunny Sunday afternoon if you want to see for yourself.

The alternative approach is customisation - setting standards for the vessels that use Circular Quay and building jetties compatible with those standards. Imagine how much more efficient ferry operations would be if the freeboard of inner harbour ferries was aligned to the pontoons where they berthed at the Quay. Using short but wide retractable gangways would allow ferries to unload quickly and free up space on pontoons. Applying standards to vessel length could also make it possible for two ferries to unload simultaneously from the same side of a wharf, saving further precious time.

It’s more efficient to have fast turnarounds at terminals than boats travelling at high speed over open water. Very fast ferries have high fuel consumption and the wash from fast ferries can be damaging to shorelines and marinas. So it’s better to save time in the vessel/wharf interface.

Allowing any boat, of any length, with any freeboard, or any variation of gangway gate configuration to use a redesigned Circular Quay is not a good option, or certainly not at berths allocated to the Sydney Ferries fleet. The design of wharves and vessels should be geared for fast turnarounds, befitting a modern mass transit system. This means wharf infrastructure projects must be integrated with fleet replacement planning.

Eschewing one size fits all thinking requires courage and vision. Courage and vision are good investments if they result in a well designed ferry terminal, more efficient ferry operations and a better passenger experience.

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.