Thanks to the good work of the Bureau of Transport Statistics, the information is publicly available on its website .
Caution should be exercised in using the data - the census covers just seven days and there may be special circumstances affecting the count in a particular week. For example, services might have been cancelled due to fog or industrial action or a wharf may have been closed for upgrade. The May 2013 count was particularly affected by fog cancellations.
Notwithstanding these cautionary notes, the data does enable the ferry enthusiast to delve a little more deeply into customer demand trends. While total ferry patronage has grown since 2010, one trend that is clear is a shift in ferry patronage away from work commuters to so called off peak periods, especially week-ends.
A proxy measure of work commuters is the count of passengers disembarking at Circular Quay, Darling Harbour, McMahons Point and Milsons Point between 7.00 am and 9.00 am on week-days. This has dropped from a high of 6,600 in November 2010 to just 5,249 in the May 2015 survey. Disembarkations at these times and at these locations include very few leisure travellers. The vast majority are people travelling by ferry to work.
|Derived from BTS data set, Ferry Load Census Data May 2010 - May 2015|
The decline in commuter numbers has happened despite an increase in numbers of daily AM peak services of around 12 per cent since May 2010.
So what is behind the drop?
There are probably many contributing reasons, but some stand out as leading candidates:
- Competition from the Manly Fast Ferry. Frequency of the Manly Fast Ferry has increased to six per hour in the AM peak and fares are now very competitive with the Opal Card. Disembarkations at Circular Quay between 7:00 am and 9:00 am from the iconic, regular Manly Ferry services has declined from a high of 1,765 in November 2010 to 1,230 in May 2015.
- Changes in fare structures. If you are commuting to work by ferry, you may need to catch a bus to your local wharf, or take a train from Circular Quay to reach your office. Changes in fares structures have made these intermodal transfers less attractive. My Multi ticket rules (the periodical travel pass ticket product) changed in September 2013 by moving Manly Ferry passengers from the cheapest MyZone 1 category to the most expensive MyZone 3. Inner Harbour passengers were moved to MyZone 2. Monthly, Quarterly and Annual My Multi tickets ceased to be available from August 2014.
More importantly, Opal card users, now the majority of passengers, are required to pay an extra fare if they need to transfer to a different mode as part of their journey.
Let's hope the current IPART review into public transport fares will start a process to remove disincentives for intermodal transfers. Without such changes, the role of ferries in Sydney commuter travel will continue to decline.