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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.


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.