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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.    


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