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Saturday, 19 March 2016

Small Can be Beautiful in Ferry Operations

In a world where we all need to be more agile and innovative,  it is sometimes the small ferry operators that lead the way in creativity.

Is it a flatter management structure, more freedom from Government bureaucracy or just good luck? I'm not sure.

Take the Manly Fast Ferry for example.

The Manly Fast Ferry came into being after a less than distinguished moment in Sydney's transport history - the sudden cessation of Sydney Ferries' JetCat service to Manly in December 2008. Capacity on the regular Manly Ferry was not really adequate to accommodate the extra demand from former JetCat riders, leading to a jump in complaints and a difficult political situation.

In stepped local family run business Bass and Flinders Cruises and offered to operate a fast ferry without subsidy, departing from the eastern side of Manly Wharf. Sailings started in February 2009 and its customer friendly service immediately became very popular with Manly residents.

Other companies expressed interest in operating the run, so the NSW Government put the fast ferry service out to tender. To the dismay of many loyal customers, the Manly Fast Ferry lost out to a rival bidder, Sydney Fast Ferries, who started operations from 1 April 2010.

But the Manly Fast Ferry wasn't going quietly. It made its own arrangements to operate from the Manly Hotel jetty and the eastern pontoon at Circular Quay. There was apparently no action the Government could take to stop this unwelcome competitor to Sydney Fast Ferries.

After five years of co-existence, the NSW Government brought some sanity into the situation and undertook another competitive tender process to select a single fast ferry operator for the Manly run. This time, Manly Fast Ferry was successful and started its new contract from April 2015. 

As public transport networks go, you couldn't get much simpler than the Manly run. No intermediate stops, just a direct trip from Manly to Circular Quay and back. But there is still a lot to like about the way the Manly Fast Ferry operates. It's not just the faster speed over water (18 minutes from Manly to Circular Quay compared 30 minutes on the regular Sydney Ferry service). There is also an attention to detail that is welcome. 

The new vessels it has recently purchased can use four gangplanks, allowing a full load of 365 passengers to disembark in just over two minutes. Two gangway gates are   

positioned at the stern of the vessel, with the rear gate mainly used by passengers seated on the upper deck or the stern and the forward gate used by passengers seated inside on the main deck. This allows faster movement of boarding and disembarking passengers. 

Sydney Ferries' First Fleet vessels also have two gangway gates - midships and stern - but their distance apart makes them more difficult to use simultaneously, especially if there is only one deckhand available. The stern gangway gate is hardly ever used at Darling Harbour, even when crowding suggests it is sorely needed.

More importantly, access between gangways and seating on the First Fleeters is quite constricted, adding significantly to the dwell time at busy terminals, because movement through gangways is blocked by passengers ahead trying to reach their seats.   

Where the Fast Ferry berths at Manly, ramp design ensures excellent and safe separation of disembarking passengers from boarding passengers, another vital ingredient for fast and safe passenger exchange.

Another strong point is the nice cadence in the Fast Ferry timetable. Service intervals are 10 minutes in the peaks and 30 minutes off peak. As there is only one berth at either terminal, vessels must tie up, load and unload, untie and clear the wharf in less than 10 minutes during the peaks. They seem to do this effortlessly, with the arriving and departing vessels crossing in open water.

I spoke to a Manly Fast Ferry deckhand yesterday about their new vessels. He spoke enthusiastically about plans to change the glass gates on the pontoon at Wharf 6 so that gang planks could be better positioned to speed up loading even further. I was impressed. People with direct experience of operations seem to be actively engaged in process improvement.

I hope the various Government employees and contractors working on the design of the new ferry terminals at Circular Quay and Barangaroo, as well as the new "Heritage" fleet due to come into service in early 2017, are paying close attention to Manly Fast Ferry operations. They could learn quite a bit. 

I have no doubt that checklists are being ticked, risk assessments completed and formal consultations conducted. But does anyone in Transport for NSW have skin in the game to the same extent as the management team at Manly Fast Ferry when preparing specifications for a new ferry? Are the consultants employed by Roads and Maritime Services as passionate about reducing the dwell at ferry terminals by 30 seconds, as the Manly Fast Ferry deckhand I spoke to yesterday clearly was

Let's all hope so.


  1. Really important point - love the sleek lines o the Manly Ferry.

  2. Thank you Kacy. I also love the look of the new inner harbour ferries the NSW Government is purchasing, but the key test will be how quickly they load. They should be in service in early 2017.