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Tuesday, 30 September 2014

The best tour of Sydney - and it only costs $15 with Opal Card

The Opal Card, Sydney's new electronic ticketing system, may have its critics, but if you want to take an inexpensive day tour of the city and its surrounds, nothing beats it. 

Monday to Saturday you can travel anywhere in Sydney with Opal for a maximum of $15 per day. On Sundays the cap is only $2.50. Even better, your travel is free if you've already made eight paid trips earlier in the week.

With the weather looking promising, the author set out yesterday on the ultimate Opal day tour. All trips were taken by ferry, but other modes could easily be integrated if needed.

Balmain East was the starting point. For the majority who live elsewhere, the first leg is a bus or train ride to Circular Quay.

Balmain East has stunning views towards the Sydney Harbour Bridge and Barangaroo Headland Park. The architecture is a mix of early colonial sandstone cottages and Victorian terraces, interposed with ugly apartment blocks from the 1960's and 70's. Residents are blessed by the fabulous Euforia Café on the corner of Darling and Johnston Streets.

The first Opal tap is at Darling Street Wharf on the F4 line for a 7:45 departure. There are two more stops, McMahons Point and Milsons Point, before the ferry sails under the Harbour Bridge and turns into Sydney Cove.

On a glorious Spring morning, is there a better sight in the world?


Transfer at Circular Quay to Wharf 3 to board the Manly Ferry for an 8:10 departure. The ride to Manly is the number one iconic Sydney ferry trip and an early start is recommended to avoid crowds on a warm day in school holidays.

After Bradleys Head is rounded, the sandstone cliffs of Middle Head come into view. The sight of the Pacific Ocean to the east is menacing, but the Outer Harbour is benign today. It is not always so. The sun is dazzling, the water is emerald green and Manly Cove looks pretty much like a tropical resort.

Highly recommended at Manly Wharf is a take away breakfast from Artisan Oats www.artisanoats.com.au . Steel cut oat porridge with rhubarb topping is only $4.50. Yum yum. Other toppings and bircher muesli are available. Enjoy it slowly at the Manly Cove water's edge.

From the wharf, head up the Corso to the surf beach. Turn right here and follow the promenade round to Shelley Beach for sun, sand, swaying casuarinas and water dragons.   

The essence of Sydney beach suburb culture is captured at Manly. It is most vivid on Sunday mornings when every possible element is on display - surf competitions, bustling cafes, Nippers, beach volleyball, joggers and cyclers, backpackers, old men with sun damaged leathery skin and melanomas, present or imminent.

But this ambience is also plain to the visitor on any warm sunny morning.

Stroll back to Manly Wharf and take the 9:45 ferry returning to Circular Quay.

Cremorne Point/ Neutral Bay

Transfer at Circular Quay to Wharf 2 and take the F6 ferry , departing at 10:30 for Cremorne Point. It's usually either a First Fleeter or a Lady boat. Cremorne Point is only 10 minutes away. You may see another water dragon here, but that's where the similarity with Manly ends. This part of the trip introduces the visitor to the sedate, well heeled Lower North Shore. 

After leaving the wharf, head left past the bus stop and take the walking track along the edge of Shell Cove. A highlight is the beautifully restored historic Macallum Pool. The walking track ends at Bogota Avenue. Continue on Bogota Avenue, then turn left at Honda Road, right at Billong Street and left at Kurraba Road. Pause outside Hollowforth at 146 Kurraba Road, a superb example of Federation architecture in an Art Nouveau style.

At this point, the traveller has a choice. If it's Wednesday to Sunday, you can visit May Gibbs Nutcote House www.nutcote.org in Wallaringa Avenue; or keep walking along Kurraba Road to the access point for Kurraba Wharf for the 11:13  ferry. If you elect to go straight to the wharf, you will have time to stop at Kirribilli at one of Sydney's best cafes, the Anvil Coffee Co. www.anvilcc.com.au  

Whichever option is taken, you do not have time to dawdle. It's a 25 minute walk from Cremorne Point to Kurraba Point wharf. If you do choose to dawdle, maybe take a dip in the Macallum Pool, you can forego both Nutcote House and the Anvil and catch the following ferry from either Neutral Bay (11:40) or Kurraba Point (11:43).

The Anvil Coffee Co is a great example of the benefits of not going overboard in infrastructure investment and just concentrating on what's important. It's perched on the idiosyncratic Kirribilli Wharf and seems to floats on the deep clear water. The views are breathtaking, the coffee is super good and the DIY fitout adds to the charm.

It's now 11:46, so time to catch the ferry back to Circular Quay. The F5 line provides the best view of the Prime Minister's home, Kirribilli House. Next door is the Governor General's Sydney residence, Admiralty House.

Cockatoo Island

Change at Circular Quay to Wharf 5 for the 12:07 F3 ferry to Cockatoo Island. This is a Rivercat service, which operates via Darling Harbour then goes direct to Cockatoo Island. First Fleet Ferries travelling via Balmain, Birchgrove, Greenwich and Woolwich also go to Cockatoo Island.

On the way to the Darling Harbour stop, the ferry passes the Barangaroo construction site (on your left, heading towards Darling Harbour). This includes the transformation of an old industrial site into a six hectare harbour foreshore park in a naturalistic style with a huge performance space underground. New commercial and residential buildings are being constructed south of the park.
Cockatoo Island www.cockatooisland.gov.au provides the heritage component of the trip. An audio tour is strongly recommended. The old convict quarters and massive former shipyard buildings create a redolent atmosphere. The restored Biloela House sits at the highest point and provides fabulous views of Sydney.

The island is at its best when hosting a big event or when the Island Bar is open (Thursday to Sundays). The place comes alive.

Take the 13:40 RiverCat to Circular Quay, or 13:19 First Fleeter if you are getting itchy feet.

Watsons Bay

Transfer at Circular Quay to the F7 Ferry departing Wharf 4 for Watsons Bay. 

For jaw dropping scenery on a day with clear skies, Watsons Bay is hard to beat.

If the lower North Shore is sedate and well heeled, parts of the Eastern Suburbs are plain opulent. The journey on the ferry provides good views of some of the most ostentatious residences in Sydney, plus glimpses of beautiful harbour beaches. The pick of them is Nielsen Park, just before the ferry pulls into Watsons Bay. 

After disembarkation, head up the hill through Robertson Park to the viewing platforms overlooking the Gap. The view is spectacular and unexpected after a quiet ride in the harbour. The views back to the city are also stunning.

Watsons Bay has a cute fishing village feel combined with the hustle and bustle of visitors, sunbathers and swimmers. A refreshment at the Watsons Bay Hotel, overlooking the ferry wharf, is recommended. www.watsonsbayhotel.com.au If you have time, you can also walk to South Head for another spectacular view, looking across the Heads to Manly.

Take the 15:45 ferry back to Circular Quay.

Taronga Zoo/ Walk to Bradleys Head

 It is starting to get late in the day and you probably need to wind down a little and recharge. No better way to do it than a short walk in natural bushland at Bradleys Head.

On returning from Watsons Bay, transfer to Wharf 2 and board the 16:20 ferry to Taronga Zoo. It should be a double ended Lady Class boat, the oldest of the Sydney Ferry fleet. The two Lady boats are the last in a line of double ended screw ferries which have served public transport in Sydney since 1892. Sit in the open upper deck area immediately behind the wheelhouse to enjoy the late afternoon breeze.   

The Zoo has now closed for the day, so don't try to go there. On leaving the wharf, walk up the right hand side of the road about 200 metres until you reach the Bradleys Head walking track. Follow the track all the way to Bradleys Head.

This walk gives you a sense of what the Sydney Harbour foreshore was like before the ravages of European settlement: graceful Angophora trees, wildflowers, secluded beaches and sandstone outcrops. You will wonder how it is possible that such natural beauty can remain just 12 minutes by slow ferry from the centre of a city with a population of nearly five million. The little beaches look like something out of Treasure Island.

Wander back and catch the 17:12 ferry back to Circular Quay. You can always catch a later one if you want to dwell longer at Bradleys Head. The last ferry leaves Taronga Zoo wharf at 19:01.

More Information

The ferry times provided are based on the week-day timetable. Week-end timetables are different. To replicate this trip, please follow either the week-day or week-end/ public holiday itineraries shown below. Note that the order of some trips on the week-end is different to accommodate the week-end ferry timetable.

If you plan to start your travel on the ferry anywhere on the Parramatta River on a sunny Sunday, please reconsider. Rivercats regularly reach capacity on trips inbound to Circular Quay on Sunday mornings.

The Sydney Ferry timetable is not strictly a regular interval timetable (see other posts on this blog about the benefits of regular interval timetables). This means you cannot assume that connections will still work if you take an earlier or later service than the ones indicated in the itineraries.

All photographs on this post were taken by the author using a Fujifilm X-20 camera, except for the image of Maccallum pool, which was sourced from the website Sydney.concreteplayground.com.au .

Wednesday, 24 September 2014

Lady Northcott Turns Forty

The oldest remaining Lady Class ferry, the Lady Northcott, turns 40 on Friday. She and the Lady Herron are the last in a line extending back to the steamer Lady Mary, which was launched in 1892.  

All the Lady boats were double ended screw ferries, ideally suited to coming and going from Circular Quay without the need for cumbersome manoeuvring. 

The world's first double ended screw ferries were developed for the Clyde River, Scotland. Sydney's North Shore Ferry Company quickly followed suit, launching Australia's first double ended screw ferry, the Wallaby, in 1879. The Wallaby was designed by famous naval architect Norman Selfe. 

Selfe's designs were later perfected by Walter Reeks in the form of the Lady boats, with the Lady Mary and Lady Napier introduced to service in 1892 by the Balmain New Ferry Company. The Lady boats have continued in service on Sydney Harbour for an unbroken 122 years, surely a record in the history of public transport.

The Lady Northcott was designed by naval architects Barnes and Fleck and built at Carrington Slipways in Newcastle. It was launched on 26 September 1974, but first went into service on 31 January 1975. It has been a stalwart of the Taronga Zoo and Mosman lines, but is not suited to the tight turning required in Neutral Bay, Mort Bay Balmain or Darling Harbour. It is sometimes used as a back up to the Manly Ferry. With a passenger capacity of 800, it has also performed heroically in moving large crowds to and from events at Cockatoo Island.                           

Tuesday, 23 September 2014

What drives patronage - speed, frequency or fares? Part 2: Parramatta River

Commuter Peak Parramatta River and Cockatoo Island Line Configuration, October 2013 
New ferry timetables in October 2013 added capacity to commuter services on the Parramatta River.

A limited stop service was introduced in the AM peaks for the Middle River (Rydalmere to Abbotsford), with boats running direct from Abbotsford to McMahons Point and Milsons Point, before terminating at Circular Quay. 

For those further down the River, the story was not so positive. AM peak services to Circular Quay from Chiswick, Huntleys Point and Drummoyne were diverted to Balmain (Thames Street), adding about five minutes to their commute. This change eliminated the need for special Inner Harbour services to take people travelling from Balmain to McMahons Point and Milsons Point.

Limited stop services are popular with many passengers. Who wants to be take a milk run to work every day?  They do, however, come at a cost. To maintain the same service frequency at each stop, more vessels are needed. If additional capacity is not available, then frequency must be reduced. A compromise somewhere in the middle (which is what happened in this case) is the other possible outcome.

The table below shows the changes in service frequency by wharf as a result of the new timetable. Five wharves lost one service, three gained one and Rydalmere lost two services. These include boats travelling to Darling Harbour and Circular Quay. 

Week-day departures for services arriving at Circular Quay or Darling Harbour by 9 am

The impact of the changes on journey time are shown in the next table. Middle River locations were the main beneficiaries. Longer average journey times for lower River locations were ameliorated by Darling Harbour services, which continued to run direct from Drummoyne.   

Average time journey time (minutes) of week-day services arriving at Circular Quay or Darling Harbour by 9 am  
So what has been the impact of these changes?

The Bureau of Transport Statistics has recently released the results of a ferry census conducted in November 2013, a month after the new timetable came into effect. A census was also conducted in the same week in 2012, allowing a "before and after" comparison to be made.

The changes in AM peak commuter patronage, shown in the table below, is striking. Demand from the lower River has dropped by over 15% and by 9% in the middle River, despite the faster trips. Gains at Sydney Olympic Park and Kissing Point were more than offset by reduced demand at Cabarita and Abbotsford.

 Week-day boardings on services arriving at Circular Quay or Darling Harbour by 9 am

One bright spot was Balmain, which was up 22%, but this is probably explained by special circumstances in November 2012. The wharf was closed for upgrade at that time with passengers using a temporary wharf at Yeend Street.   

Despite two extra sailings in the AM peak runnings and two additional vessels, commuter patronage has declined by nearly 6% on the Parramatta River/Cockatoo Island routes. Average loadings per sailing are down from 91 to 78.   

One fat frog does not make a cane toad plague. The census is only taken over one week and there can be data inaccuracies. Changes to the MyMulti ticket products, discussed in the previous post, are likely to have had an impact too.

But the numbers show a striking pattern. It is a pattern consistent with what transport planners in European cities have said for a long time - keep the network simple and maximise frequencies.