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Wednesday, 28 October 2015

The myth that ferries don't compete on cost with other public transport modes

There is a common assumption that urban transit ferries cost more to operate per passenger journey - and attract greater taxpayer subsidies - than other modes of public transport. 

Often this is true, but it is not always the case. 

A previous post on this blog debunks the myth that Sydney Ferries attract much higher subsidies than buses or trains. 

But the misunderstanding persists and often leads to  
rhetorical questions like "why should battlers in the western suburbs subsidise rich ferry riders from the north shore or eastern suburbs?" I have even heard it raised at IPART hearings. 

So it's time to restate the facts.

The NSW Auditor-General's Financial Audit Report - Volume Seven 2014 - provides a helpful table showing the operating costs and revenue per passenger of three modes of public transport in NSW (trains, buses and ferries) in the 12 months ending June 2014. A graphical version is shown below:
Source: NSW Auditor-General's Financial Audit Report Volume 7 2014, p. 17
Net cost per passenger journey, after deducting farebox revenue, is $10.61 for rail, $6.24 for ferries and $5.88 for buses. This means the subsidy per passenger for rail is more than $4 higher than ferries. The difference between buses and ferries is almost negligible. 

Now there will be arguments about what the Audit Office includes as a cost. And the average rail journey is longer than either ferry or bus journeys (this raises another question - why aren't train fares commensurately higher for longer trips?). 

All of this does muddy the water, but the difference in operating costs are really not that great.  

When other issues come into play, such as the impact on CBD congestion caused by conga lines of buses entering and leaving the city, the argument for ferries becomes more compelling. Ferries certainly have a competitive advantage over buses in near city suburbs with good waterway connections. 

Tuesday, 6 October 2015

Putting the horse before the cart in ferry infrastructure

Not since the opening of the Harbour Bridge in 1932 has Sydney seen more major projects planned to support its ferry network. The recent announcement of a major upgrade to Circular Quay is one of many major ferry infrastructure investments, including a new hub to be built at Barangaroo South and the acquisition of six new inner harbour ferries.

The thought of shiny new terminals with glamourous retail areas affording sparkling views of Sydney Harbour can bring a rush of excitement. But let’s not forget the main purpose of a ferry terminal is to provide for the safe and efficient berthing of vessels and the safe and efficient exchange of passengers. And before we can say with confidence that the new terminals will perform these functions adequately, a more fundamental question needs to be answered: what should the ferry network of the future look like? Only then can the operational specifications of the new terminals and vessels be settled.

Why does the network matter?

One obvious example is the level of connectivity that passengers should expect. If Sydney was to adopt world’s best practice in network design, all lines hubbing at Circular Quay would operate to a pulse timetable, as practised by the Swiss and in other parts of continental Europe.  All ferry services would arrive at Circular Quay shortly before the hour and half hour and depart shortly after the hour and half hour. This would enable lines intersecting at Circular Quay (or at Barangaroo for that matter) to connect conveniently with just a short transfer wait time.

It would also make Sydney Cove safer to navigate, as arriving vessels would no longer interfere with those that are departing.

Opting for quality in network design has consequences.  A well connected network must be punctual or planned connections will fail. This requires more advanced gangway technology at wharves and on vessels, so services are not delayed by slow passenger loading.  And if timed connections become the norm, pontoon ramps and the passenger concourse at Circular Quay and Barangaroo must allow free movement of passengers transferring between vessels.

One of the biggest questions is how to make better use of Barangaroo in the network. The current King Street Darling Harbour terminal is a poor relation to Circular Quay, but this is now changing with developments on the western side of the CBD. By the time King Street wharf is replaced by a four berth terminal at Barangaroo in late 2016, ferry passengers coming from the west of the city will find this to be easily the most convenient point of entry to Sydney’s CBD. This is thanks in part to the Wynyard Walk project, which will provide easy pedestrian access to Wynyard Station and George Street.
The best option would be for all ferry lines west of the harbour bridge to hub at Barangaroo, including a new line to the White Bay Power Station in anticipation of the Bays Precinct development. There is no reason why the Darling Harbour, White Bay and Parramatta lines should not all pulse at Barangaroo, adding significantly to the utility and liveliness of this terminal.

The building of a new transport interchange does not of itself improve the connectivity of a network. Only timetables make connections, but they need well designed infrastructure to support them. It is time for Sydney to stop putting the cart before the horse. Let’s design our networks first before building the supporting infrastructure.