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Friday, 15 December 2017

Manly Fast Ferry and the Opal card

There is much that's admirable about Manly Fast Ferries:
  • as far as I know, the company attracts no Government subsidy;
  • peak services run at 10 minute intervals and every 20 minutes off peak. This is a more frequent ferry service than any other route on Sydney Harbour;
  • journey time is 18 minutes, compared to 30 minutes on the "slow ferry" - the iconic double ended Manly ferry operated by Harbour City Ferries under the Sydney Ferries public transport contract;
  • fares are generally cheaper than the Opal card fare on the slow ferry - $6.99 for peak services compared to the slow ferry Opal fare of $7.35; and
  • daily patronage is 11,000 (all eight routes operated by Harbour City Ferries carry an average of 43,000 passengers daily).
What was missing was fare integration. It's inconvenient for passengers to use different ticketing systems for different operators or different modes. And passengers should not be penalised for having to transfer to a bus or train to complete their journey.

So when it was announced that the Opal card would be recognised on the Manly Fast Ferry from Sunday 17 December, many passengers were probably quite excited. Unfortunately, the reality is not what they might be expecting:
  • the adult fare is $8.70, $1.71 more than it is for holders of the existing Manly Fast Ferry Smartcard travelling on a peak service;
  • travel on the Manly Fast Ferry is not recognised for the daily travel cap of $15.40 or the weekly or Sunday caps;
  • none of the other Opal "perks" apply - transfer discount of $2 and Opal concession fares.
If a passenger doesn't have a Manly Fast Ferry smartcard and they are running late, yes they may use their Opal card. But otherwise, who would?

It is quite understandable that Manly Fast Ferries would seek to protect its revenue base. It would not, for example, wish to forego revenue lost through the daily or weekly caps, or transfer discounts. 

But given the quality of public transport provided by Manly Fast Ferries, at no cost to the taxpayer, one would have thought that a small compensatory payment could be made by Transport for NSW to MFF. This would cover any revenue loss caused by offering Fast Ferry passengers the usual benefits enjoyed by Opalcard users. The benefits need not extend to the $2.60 Sunday cap or $2.50 Gold Opal daily cap, which are excessive perks that Sydneysiders need to be weaned off at some point.


Sunday, 10 December 2017

So much data, so little information

There is some information about public transport networks which most us would expect to be freely available. Patronage[1], which is the number of passenger journeys on a network over a period of time, usually monthly and annually, is an example of this type of information.

It’s not just the absolute number that’s important, but also the trend over time. What is the growth in patronage over 10 years? Or is it declining? How does growth on one mode compare with others? Does the growth vary between lines? Is the growth in peak periods or off peak?

You might assume that patronage in New South Wales is nothing more than a count of Opal card tap ons or ticket sales, but this was never the case and it’s not now. As well as Opal tap ons, patronage includes an estimate of non-ticketed journeys, untapped school student travel and integrated ticketing special event travel.

Sydney Ferries’ patronage figures used to be made available by a part of Transport for NSW known as the Bureau of Transport Statistics or BTS. BTS published a lot of information on its website about Sydney Ferries, including monthly patronage by service area (Manly, Inner Harbour and Parramatta River) going back six or seven years. It also released data from a seven day census taken twice a year of passenger boardings and disembarkations by wharf, service and time of day. It even provided the name of the vessel and its capacity, so if you knew what you were doing, you could estimate capacity utilisation by service.

Summaries of the ferry census were produced by the BTS, showing trends in passenger loadings by time of day, individual routes and wharves.

I liked dealing with the BTS. I was never in doubt that they were on the side of transparency, high standards and the pursuit of knowledge. 

The BTS was restructured in 2016 into Transport Performance and Analytics (TPA). The old was swept away with promises that even better information would be released, thanks to the higher quality Opal data now available. And a new website, Open Data, was created to make it easier for advanced users to download Opal and a range of information from other “big data” sources.

So where does that leave us with ferry patronage? There is a data visualisation on the TPA website called “Historical Patronage Counts”, which shows NSW patronage by mode and financial year, back to 2010-11. The 2016-17 count for ferries is 16.009 million, up from 15.410 million in the previous year. The explanatory notes inform that ferry patronage includes Opal journeys, magnetic stripe ticket validations (July 2016 only) and an estimate of non ticketed journeys. No problems there, except that the number for 2016-17 includes Newcastle ferry patronage. This amounts to about 470,000, give or take 50,000, so Sydney Ferries patronage last year was actually somewhere between 15.5 and 15.6 million, or only a little more than 2015-16.

What the heck?

After a series of polite email exchanges with someone at TPA, who describes him or herself only as “TPA Inbox Manager”, I’ve reached the conclusion that the taxpayers of New South Wales will never find out exactly what Sydney Ferries patronage was in 2016-17. It will only be published at the “top line level” - a total for Sydney Ferries and Newcastle Ferries and will remain forever incompatible with the counts for all previous years. Not only don’t we know what the patronage was precisely, but the historical patronage chart compares apples with pears. Or apples with apples plus grapes.

It could be argued that this is all just pedantry on my part. Who cares if Sydney Ferries’ patronage is 15.5 million or 15.6 million, or if Newcastle ferry numbers are lumped in from July 2016. Near enough is good enough. And anyway, TPA does provide monthly counts of Opal trips by line and fare category, which the BTS did not publish.

Even if I am a pedant, there are more serious concerns about information transparency. I naively welcomed the promise of granular level opal trip information. Rather than rely on a seven day census count, twice a year, we could now expect more accurate Opal tap data over 365 days of the year, with origin-destination pairs.

Well, it has yet to happen. The little snippets made available on the Open Data site is subject to strict privacy controls. The counts of tap ons and offs for individual wharves in 15 minute “bins” are only reported if the value is 18 or more. In practice, the vast majority of wharves have very few 15 minute bins which qualify, so the data is of little analytical value. And the latest counts available are from January 2017, almost a year ago.

I asked a planner at Transport for NSW last year if he was worried about the 20% decline in ferry commuter patronage in the AM peaks (that information used to be available from the BTS published ferry census data). “No,” he replied,“the latest Opal data shows a big turnaround. But it’s information that only TfNSW has access to”.

The news that commuter ferry patronage is growing again was of course very reassuring, although it would be good if the information was published. Then everyone can access detailed patronage data to see for themselves how demand for Sydney Ferries’ services is trending.

I miss the BTS.

[1] Americans call it ridership, which is probably a better word, but I’m Australian so I’ll stick with patronage

Sunday, 3 December 2017

New wharf at Milsons Point

Upgraded wharf at Milsons Point: view towards western landing platform
When it was announced late last year that the Milsons Point wharf was to be upgraded, many were surprised it was happening so soon after the last rebuild. It was only in 2010 that the wharf was completely rebuilt. And some people complain about a sports stadium being knocked down after 20 years!

The main reason for the 2017 upgrade was to add a second landing platform, a need that most would have thought could have been anticipated back in 2010. Milsons Point is a busy wharf both in passenger numbers and vessel berthings as it is a stop for Darling Harbour ferries, Parramatta River ferries in the AM and PM peaks and non regulated ferries and party boats. Without two landing platforms, it gets congested. And separation of the landing platforms minimises pedestrian crushes.
Plan of Milsons Point Wharf. Source: RMS Review of Environmental Factors  

The 2017 version of Milsons Point wharf opened on Sunday 26 November.

There are some good features in the design. Unlike other dual berthing wharves designed by Roads and Maritime Services (RMS) this one has two separate landing platforms, with the berth faces roughly in line with each other and separated by about 60 metres. This means if two vessels berth at the same time, neither of them need to make a time wasting reversing manouevre.

And there are other good points too. The height of the hydraulic landing platforms automatically adjust to the freeboard of the incoming vessel. Signage and indicator boards are effective and make clear which ramp passengers should use to catch the right ferry. Passenger ingress and egress is improved and passengers are able to use steps as well as ramps to exit the wharf, which should reduce pedestrian congestion. 

But for all these improvements there is still, even after a second go at building the wharf, a serious flaw - the landing platforms are too small. The new Emerald Class vessels have capacity to use two double gangways - midships and stern - which would allow for very fast loading and unloading of passengers. Unfortunately, neither of the landing platforms look big enough to allow one double gangway to be manouevred, let alone two.
Eastern landing platform of Milsons Point Wharf
This deficiency probably adds minutes to the dwell at Milsons Point when large crowds are using the wharf. On a return trip from Circular Quay, that could be an extra four or five minutes in an already tight schedule.

The NSW State Government is investing a lot in new transport infrastructure. While the new Milsons Point wharf is definitely an improvement on the 2010 version, it still falls short on that most vital of criteria, the speed of passenger exchange. We really should expect better.

Tuesday, 28 November 2017

The verdict on Sydney's Cross Harbour ferry service

Sydney Ferries' Cross Harbour route
There is the germ of a good idea in the new Sydney Ferry  timetable which came into effect last Sunday. Effective public transport networks provide multi-destination travel, not just a trip to and from a terminal in the central business district. That’s because most of our journeys don’t have the city centre as a destination. We’re more likely to need to go somewhere on the other side of the city or to another suburb that’s not directly between where we are and the city terminal.

But Sydney’s transport networks, including ferries, have an unrelenting CBD focus. It’s one of the reasons the city remains addicted to the private motor car.

Transport for NSW should be congratulated therefore for trying something different in the new ferry timetable. The Watsons Bay and Darling Harbour lines have been joined together into a Cross Harbour service. Circular Quay is not the “end of the line”, but the mid-point of a route that starts on one side of the city and terminates at the other. A passenger from Rose Bay, for example, can now travel to Milsons Point, Balmain East or Barangaroo, and back, without changing to a different vessel. This is known as “through lining” and although it is a well established method elsewhere for facilitating cross town trips, it has never been tried before in the 164 year history of Sydney Ferries.

On top of this, the way that extra services are scheduled for Double Bay means there are now all day timed connections at Circular Quay between this line and the Cockatoo Island route. It’s not quite as easy for passengers to navigate as a through line, but anyone from Double Bay with an aunt at Greenwich Point really has no excuse for not visiting her now. The transfer wait at the Quay is between 8 and 10 minutes, all day, seven days a week. 
Double Bay and Cockatoo Island routes. Timed transfers at Circular Quay

If a criticism could be leveled at the strategic intent, it is that Transport for NSW did not go all the way and make timed connections for all lines at Circular Quay. This is known as integrated pulse timetabling and it’s the backbone of the Swiss public transport system. It’s also the basis for a plan to make a ten-fold increase in intercity train patronage in California by 2040.

But the germ of a good idea is only fruitful if it is nurtured with attention to detail. This is where the Cross Harbour service failed on Sunday, with vessels falling behind schedule due to the tight timetable and customary Sunday crowds causing loading times to blow out. Vessel swaps by Harbour City Ferries protected passengers from longer delays, but the fact remains that the new timetable developed by Transport for NSW is unachievable, except when demand is light.

Problems with the timetable were anticipated in a previous post

The Cross Harbour service worked much better on Monday and today, despite some clunky crew changes. The impact of these were minimal due to light passenger loadings in Darling Harbour. 

Crews will get used to the new timetable over time and gain more confidence in handling the new vessels. Perhaps wrinkles in the crewing arrangements will be sorted too. But it remains unlikely that the Cross Harbour will work smoothly when there is high demand on a week-end or school holidays.

It is unrealistic to expect no teething problems in a major timetable change. Even allowing for this, there seems to be a lack tenacity in getting the details right in Sydney’s ferry planning. And it's not just the timetable. How much thought goes into strategies to reduce the time it takes for vessels to berth or for passengers to be loaded? When expensive infrastructure projects are undertaken, like wharf upgrades and fleet replacement, does someone have a vision for how the design of vessels and terminals can better integrate over the long term? What is the plan for reducing congestion in Sydney Cove, which according to the Office of Transport Safety Investigations is a significant safety risk?

Through lining may never be a reliable option for Sydney Ferries, so long as our vessels and wharves are not designed for fast passenger exchange, a basic requirement of modern public transport systems. Perhaps the silly name given to our newest ferry points to a deeper malaise. Planning for waterborne transport in Sydney is not given the serious attention it deserves and requires.

Thursday, 2 November 2017

More on the Sydney Ferry Timetable Changes

There is an issue with the 26 November timetable changes which was not addressed in the previous post - the capacity of ferries to keep to time in the Darling Harbour section of the new Cross Harbour route. As previously discussed, the Cross Harbour route is a "through line", which joins Watsons Bay and Rose Bay with the Darling Harbour route via Circular Quay. 

Currently, the time allocated for the Darling Harbour route off peak is 59 minutes, from departure at Circular Quay to arrival at the Quay on return. Under the new timetable, this is reduced to 55 minutes, even though there is one additional stop - ferries will stop at Barangaroo in the inbound and outbound direction. They now stop at Barangaroo only when outbound from Circular Quay.

It may be argued that the new vessels operating the route - the Emeralds - have the extra speed and acceleration needed to shave four minutes off the journey compared to the slower First Fleeters now used. It is true the Emeralds will be faster between McMahons Point and Balmain East where there are no speed restrictions, but I'm doubtful they will always be able to complete the round trip in 55 minutes:

  • speed restrictions of 8 or 15 knots are enforced over most of the route, so in these sections the Emerald boats will not have a speed advantage;
  • there is no evidence yet that the Emerald Class is more manouevrable than the First Fleeters. They appear to me to be less manouevrable, lacking the twin rudder feature of the older vessels, so berthing the new boats at intermediate stops may actually be slower;
  • the extra stop at Barangaroo will add at least two or three minutes to the running time;
  • the new timetable has departures from Balmain East to Circular Quay and to Barangaroo scheduled only one minute apart. This creates a conflict, unless one vessel berths on the western side of the pontoon. This too will have a small delaying effect.
Taking all of these issues in combination, it is hard to envisage the ferries being able to keep to time during periods of heavy loading, especially on week-ends. As pointed out by one of my correspondents, David Caldwell, there is minimal recovery time at Circular Quay, so any delay on the Darling Harbour stage will have flow on effects for Watsons Bay and Rose Bay passengers.  

Monday, 16 October 2017

Sydney Ferry Timetable Changes Reviewed

Changes to the Sydney Ferry timetable were announced yesterday and take effect from Sunday 26 November. 

The main changes affect the existing Eastern Suburbs and Darling Harbour routes. An announcement by the NSW Government earlier in the year foreshadowed the main modifications, but yesterday's release provides all the details

  • Services to Darling Point and Double Bay will become an entirely separate route from the Watsons Bay/Rose Bay line. Under the current timetable, Darling Point is only serviced week-days in the AM and PM peaks. Double Bay has some off peak services, but they are irregular at best. The new timetable will give Darling Point and Double Bay passengers a 60 minute interval service in the off peak, seven days a week.
  • Watsons Bay and Rose Bay will become stops on a "through line" to be known as the Cross Harbour route. It merges Watson Bay and Rose Bay services with the existing Darling Harbour route. Passengers from Watsons Bay or Rose Bay will be able to travel on the same vessel to Darling Harbour, via Circular Quay, Milsons Point, McMahons Point and Balmain East. The new route terminates at its western end at Pyrmont Bay. Barangaroo becomes an intermediate stop rather than a terminus. Watsons Bay remains an "off peak only" stop with Captain Cook cruises continuing to provide a commuter peak service to this wharf.
  • A second stopping pattern will operate on week-ends between Circular Quay and Darling Harbour, with stops at Milsons Point, Barangaroo and Pyrmont Bay only. This pattern will operate at 30 minute intervals, lifting the frequency of services between CQ and Barangaroo to 15 minutes on week-ends (currently 20 minutes).
  • Cockatoo Island formally becomes a separate route from the Parramatta line. Late evening services to Balmain (Thames Street), Birchgrove, Greenwich and Woolwich will no longer be add ons to the Parramatta River runs.


Overall, the changes are moving Sydney's ferry network in a positive direction. There is clearly a strategy to create a more legible timetable with greater effort to achieve consistent clock-face scheduling. This has partly been accomplished by the acquisition of new Inner Harbour Emerald Class ferries, which provide more flexibility in the runnings.

This improvement is highlighted by the off peak Rose Bay timetable. Passengers from Rose Bay should be pleased to see that off peak sailings in the direction of Circular Quay
will always now depart at 29 and 59 minutes past the hour, reducing to a 60 minute interval (29 minutes past the hour) after 19:29. Simple and easy to remember.

But there is room for improvement.

Through lining is good in principle, but the combination of Watsons Bay and Darling Harbour is not ideal as the two routes have different demand profiles. This is discussed further in a previous post. Until Watsons Bay wharf is upgraded there is a risk also that delays at Watsons Bay will cause flow on punctuality issues for the Darling Harbour section of the line.

There are also some specific issues of concern revealed in the details released yesterday:

  • departures from Rose Bay in the direction of Watsons Bay are almost all scheduled one minute after departures in the direction of Circular Quay. Rose Bay is a single berth pontoon and scheduling the two so closely together will cause delays. Departures from a single berth should be at least four minutes apart. On a quick calculation, this feature will affect 113 services a week and cause vessels to sit idly off Rose Bay for a total of more than five hours every week.
  • Darling Point passengers are big winners from the new timetable, but will be affected by a curious feature. Off peak services will only stop at Darling Point in the inbound direction until 12:25 week-days and 13:25 week-ends. Outbound off peak ferries only stop there from 13:10 week-days and 14:10 week-ends. It could be argued that those who need to travel to or from Darling Point at other times can go via Double Bay first, but I'm not convinced it's necessary. The Double Bay cycle provides a five minute layover at Double Bay and a stop at Darling Point will only add two minutes to the journey.
  • Having two stopping patterns for the Darling Harbour section of the Cross Harbour route on week-ends is less than ideal. Simplicity is almost always better than complexity. I expect it will cause confusion and some lost ferry passengers.
The general progression to a more legible Sydney Ferry network is welcome. What we don't see yet, apart from the "Cross Harbour" experiment, is improved line connectivity at Circular Quay.  Why not take the periodicity a little bit further and adopt a fully integrated pulse timetable?  

Wednesday, 20 September 2017

Benefits of Regular Interval Timetables: Part 2 Efficiency

Most ferry passengers probably don't care much about efficiency. Inefficiency is usually not visible and nor are the consequences. 

But the efficient use of assets and resources, especially labour, makes a big difference to the cost of running a ferry system and impacts on the economics of new routes or service frequency on existing ones. That's why everyone should be very concerned about operational efficiency.

From the operator's perspective, a key efficiency measure is the ratio between crew roster hours and ferry service hours. It is desirable in each roster line to increase the time crews spend driving vessels on timetabled services and reduce time in non revenue earning activities.  Some non revenue earning hours are essential, including mandatory crib (meal) breaks, positioning trips and training and safety drills, but minimising "sitting around" time can make significant savings for the operator and the taxpayers who subsidise the operator.

So how does a timetable impact on efficiency?

If a timetable follows an irregular pattern, and vessels can return to a hub at any time, long periods of down time in excess of mandatory crib breaks are almost inevitable. It is unlikely that the period between finishing a run before a crib break or restarting after the break will correspond exactly to the mandatory time allowed for breaks. 

By contrast, a regular interval timetable is modular.  In a 30 minute interval network, vessels return to a hub a few minutes before the hour and half hour and depart a few minutes after the hour and half hour. This means crib breaks can always occur in neat 30 or 60 minute blocks with minimal wastage.

This level of modularity is only possible in a regular interval timetable.

Further efficiency improvement can be made by stopping the practice of resting vessels when the crew take a crib break. If crews returning from a crib break are assigned to whatever vessel needs crewing, then vessels would achieve higher utilisation rates and reduce requirements for berthing capacity at busy terminals like Circular Quay.

The upside for passengers is that all of these efficiency gains would make expansion of the ferry network more attractive to Government. And that means a better customer experience.


Monday, 11 September 2017

Six Benefits of Regular Interval Timetables - Part 1 Customer Experience

What is a regular interval timetable?

It is a rail, bus or ferry timetable that operates at a fixed time interval all day - say every 30 minutes. An integrated regular interval timetable goes a step further by also ensuring passengers have a short wait time at hubs before transferring to another service or mode.

A network wide regular interval timetable was first introduced on the Netherlands rail network in 1932, but it was the Swiss Federal Railways who took it to a new level of sophistication. This happened from 1982 with the first iteration of Taktfahrplan, which loosely translates in English to "pulse timetable".

The simplified network diagram below illustrates how it works in practice:
A 30 minute regular interval timetable with connecting nodes
The example shows a two line rail network operating at 30 minute intervals. Trains on the Red Line arrive at Station F shortly before the hour and half hour. Trains on the Blue Line cross at Station F on the hour and half hour, enabling passengers from the Red Line to transfer to a Blue Line train travelling in either direction (towards Station E or H). 

The Red Line train departs Station F shortly afterwards, providing convenient connections for transferring passengers from both the Blue Line trains.

Any crossover point in the network (in this example, they occur at 15 and 45 minutes past the hour), creates opportunities for similar symmetrical transfers to other modes, such as the bus line shown connecting at Station C. 

What is unique about the Swiss approach is the importance of Taktfahrplan as a strategic driver of transport planning - convenient timetables with timed transfers at network nodes underpin the entire public transport network. They are devised 20 years in advance of implementation and help set priorities for infrastructure upgrades. Technology is not the driver, but a means to achieve a purpose, which is to improve the performance of the timetable.  

Regular interval timetables are ideally suited to urban transit ferry systems. They make ferry travel easier for customers and simplify operations, leading to lower subsidies by taxpayers. But with the notable exception of Brisbane Ferries, the concept has not been embraced in Australia. Perhaps it's because the benefits are not well understood. 

Benefit 1 - a better customer experience through simplicity and connections

Benefit 1 is really two benefits, but they are closely related. Simiplicity comes from the regularity of the timetable - the service always departs from a stop at the same minute interval every hour, so it is easy to remember the timetable. But because it is also a pulse timetable, timed connections at interchanges are also regular and consistent.

The following example shows how easy it would be to navigate across the Sydney ferry network, if it was based on these principles. 

Let's imagine you live at Elizabeth Bay and a ferry now stops at Elizabeth Bay twice an hour. The ferry departs for the downtown terminal at Circular Quay 15 minutes before and 15 minutes after the hour, every hour. In the outbound direction - towards Double Bay - it departs 12 minutes before and 18 minutes past the hour.

If you arrived at Elizabeth Bay Wharf 15 minutes before the hour, what destinations could you conveniently reach by ferry and how long would it take?

Within 15 minutes you could be at Circular Quay or any other stop on the Double Bay line.
As all ferries arrive at Circular Quay a few minutes before the hour and depart a few minutes after the hour, you would be able to transfer at the Quay to the Manly Ferry or any Inner Harbour ferry with just a short waiting time. This means that within a further 15 minutes, seven more destinations can be reached.
And in another ten minutes - 40 minutes since the journey started at Elizabeth Bay - a total of 17 destinations could be reached by ferry.  This does not include numerous other destinations through transfers to other modes at Circular Quay, Milsons Point, McMahons Point etc. 

So you can see that from two very simple principles - regular intervals and timed connections at interchange points - a ferry network can be easy to comprehend for the passenger and provide access to multiple destinations with great convenience. 

This is the first in a six part series on regular interval timetabling: Parts 2 to 6 will follow in coming weeks.     

Sunday, 6 August 2017

More thoughts on Barangaroo Ferry Terminal

It is easy to be critical of new transport infrastructure. I'm usually reluctant to do so, because there are often good reasons for compromises in a design solution which the general public are not privy to. We are not aware of all the issues that need to be taken into account by the design team.

In any case, humans are fallible and mistakes are inevitable. They can often be fixed later. The First Fleet ferries were originally designed with a single midships gangway. A stern gangway gate was added later and the midships gangway gates were more recently widened to accommodate double gangways. These improvements make passenger loading faster at floating pontoon wharves.

Much as I want to be sanguine about Sydney's latest ferry infrastructure - the new terminal at Barangaroo - there is at least one design fault which is hard to fathom. Wharf stanchions - what non mariners might call fences - are positioned so that when a First Fleet ferry berths, the stern gangway is blocked off. Passengers can only disembark or load via the midships gangway.
The stern of a First Fleet ferry berthed at Barangaroo
After October, it is planned that the new Emerald Class boats will replace First Fleeters on the Barangaroo run, but the problem will remain as the Emerald stern gangway will line up in the same position.

Normally passengers can disembark and load via the midships gangway only without causing delays. The layover is currently a relaxed seven minutes for most of the day. But it becomes a problem when there is crowding on school holiday Sundays or during special events, when the faster loading afforded by two gangways becomes essential to keep ferries on time.

And we cannot assume the scheduled layover will always be seven minutes. Future network changes may require a tighter turnaround.

How did this happen? Who knows, but when the primary purpose of a ferry wharf is to allow for the efficient and safe transfer of passengers between boat and land, you would expect that free access to both the stern and midships gangways was a number one consideration. Evidently it wasn't.

Monday, 26 June 2017

First thoughts on the Barangaroo Ferry Terminal

Disembarking passengers from a Parramatta River ferry at Barangaroo
The long awaited opening of the Barangaroo ferry terminal finally happened today, creating Sydney's second major ferry terminal (the first of course is Circular Quay). It replaces the sadly inadequate King Street Darling Harbour wharf, about 250 metres to the south. The pontoon at King Street wharf is far too small to accommodate crowds and was frankly dangerous during events like the Vivid Festival or even regular, busy Sunday afternoons.

The Barangaroo terminal comprises two wharves. For reasons unknown, the two wharves are collectively described by Transport for NSW as "the Barangaroo Wharf" (singular). Why not just call it a terminal? I plan to. For the moment, only Wharf 1 is being used, but both will be required when additional ferry services are introduced in October. 

To say the terminal is a big improvement on King Street is an understatement. It is vastly superior to either the King Street wharf or Circular Quay for crowd management. The pontoons and ramps are wide and uncluttered, allowing easy direct egress to the pedestrian concourse at Barangaroo South, without being impinged upon by crib rooms or food outlets. And it's a short five minute stroll through Wynyard Walk to Wynyard railway station for connecting train services.
Disembarking passengers can easily be separated from those waiting to board
Features not obvious to users today is the facility to insert temporary queuing barriers when required. This will allow wharf staff to maintain separation of boarding and disembarking passengers during events or busy Sundays.

The opening of Barangaroo creates opportunities that were not previously possible. Why not have ferry routes from Barangaroo to White Bay, Glebe Point and the revamped Fish Markets? And why not use this extra capacity to reduce congestion at Circular Quay by terminating River and Woolwich ferries at Barangaroo?


First run for a new Sydney Ferry Class

Passengers disembark at Barangaroo from the first Fred Hollows service
"Commodious" was a commonly used adjective for describing newly commissioned ferries in the Nineteenth Century. The Sydney Morning Herald breathlessly reported the launch of a new double ended steamer, the Wallaby, on 3 April 1879, saying it was "one of the most commodious boats of her kind constructed here".

The Herald also reported on the North Shore Ferry company's plans in 1882 "to build larger and (even) more commodious ferry steamers." Seven years later, the Company announced its order for a "commodious and swift harbour steamer...of a similar type to the Bunya Bunya". 

Over a century may have passed, but commodious and swift are also apt epithets for the latest addition to the Sydney Ferry fleet, the 35 metre catamaran Fred Hollows. It entered the runnings on the 0807 Darling Harbour service this morning and is the first new Sydney Ferry to be acquired in 16 years. Fred is the first of six boats to be acquired by the NSW Government in what will now be known as the Emerald Class.

Today was certainly a big one in Sydney's ferry history as there wasn't just a ferry launch -  the new four berth ferry terminal at Barangaroo South also opened this morning.

Customer experience

The extra 10 metres length compared to a First Fleeter makes a distinct difference. One passenger boarding at Balmain East gasped "it looks like we're catching the Manly Ferry".

Although the superstructure is evocative of the Alan Payne designed First Fleet Class (and they share the same passenger capacity - 400), the interior is far more spacious and comfortable. The two doorways on either side of the vessel should allow faster embarkation than the First Fleeters, if deckhands deploy two gangways.

The roomy interior of the Fred Hollows on its first run

And the Emerald Class is certainly swift, with a maximum speed of 24 knots. 

Passengers will also enjoy having more outside seating on the upper deck, including forward seating, a feature not available on the upper deck of First Fleeters. And in very Sydney style, there's no air conditioning. In summer windows can be opened to get the sea breeze and we wear a coat for the two months of the year when it's cold. 

There is less to like about Fred's external appearance. The straight lines of the hull don't compare well with the curves of a First Fleeter, but then aesthetics are a matter of personal taste. I'll probably get used to it.

A minor disappointment is the lack of a forward view from inside the main deck. The raised bow and outside seating obscures the view. Alan Payne was meticulous in designing the First Fleeters so that passengers inside had the best possible vision of Sydney Harbour. But this is a small quibble.

Operational considerations

Although it's the first in service, Fred Hollows is the second Emerald Class ferry built by Incat in Hobart. The first built - Catherine Hamlin - had some deficiencies, the main one being its capacity to manouevre in high winds. These were rectified in Fred Hollows, which has a bigger rudder and keel. Catherine will be similarly modified at the Harbour City Ferries Balmain Shipyard before entering service. 

It looks like Emerald Class ferries will be deployed on Watsons Bay/ Rose Bay runs, as well as Inner Harbour services (mainly Darling Harbour). They also have capability to back up the Manly Ferry in case of a breakdown. 

The benefit of a multi purpose class is that it offers the possibility of a simpler fleet configuration - perhaps the end game is a fleet of just three classes:

  • Freshwater Class (or whatever replaces it), operating Manly services;
  • RiverCats for the Parramatta River; and
  • Emerald Class for the Inner Harbour, including Watsons Bay/ Rose Bay (The First Fleeters probably have at least another 10 years life in them, so this is a long term strategy).
A previous post explains the benefits of a ferry operation minimising its vessel classes. It's a laudable goal. 

The challenge is that it is hard to build a boat which is well suited to long runs out to Watsons Bay/ Rose Bay and the shorter runs in the Inner Harbour. 

Watsons Bay and Rose Bay passengers have grown accustomed to a fast journey via the SuperCats for about 16 years, hence the requirement to retain fast ferry capacity on this route. But speed has a downside. Frictional resistance on a wetted hull means ferries travelling at 24 knots use a lot of fuel. If the Emerald Class boats are like the SuperCats, they will need to be refueled every day. That's a big cost disadvantage compared to the sedate 13 knot First Fleeters, which only refuel once a week.

Why deploy a 24 knot fast ferry in the true Inner Harbour (between Bradleys Head and Cockatoo Island), on routes where much of the distance traveled has speed restrictions of 15 knots or less? Improving the passenger loading process would achieve a better return in journey speed for the Inner Harbour routes.

But it is early days for the Emerald Class. If there is a common theme in the history of Sydney ferry fleet acquisition, it might be described as iterative. Time and experience leads to modifications and the best way of doing things just sort of unfolds over time. It will probably continue that way. 

Thursday, 22 June 2017

The retiring Ladies

The Lady Northcott makes her way to Taronga Zoo
It looks like the retirement of the Lady Northcott and Lady Herron, the last remaining Inner Harbour double enders, is now imminent. Many feel sad about it, including me. 

We feel sad because the two Ladies recall a distant past, before we were born, when large single hulled double ended screw steamers buzzed across Sydney Harbour. Many of us have a grandparent or Great Aunt who told us stories of coal dust in their clothes, the all day 10 minute headways between Milsons Point and Circular Quay or the exquisite wood lined interiors of the South Steyne. They are evocative of a Sydney that no longer exists.

The antecedents of the Lady Northcott and Lady Herron go right back to April 1879 when Sydney's first double ended screw ferry, the Wallaby, was launched. It was designed by Norman Selfe and built at Dunn's Berrys Bay boatyard. It was probably the world's first successful doubled ended screw ferry.  
The Wallaby, Sydney's first double ended screw propelled ferry

The tradition of naming the boats with the honorific "Lady" started in 1892, when two Walter Reeks designed ferries, Lady Mary and Lady Napier, were launched.

Double enders are in the DNA of Sydneysiders, so why wouldn't we be sad about losing the Northcott and the Herron? We're losing family. 

Double enders were once considered the only option for congested ferry operations in Sydney Cove as they removed the need for risky reverse manouevring. For many years, it was illegal for anything but a double ender to berth at Circular Quay. It's still a useful feature, but technology has moved on and the introduction of the highly manouevrable First Fleeters 30 years ago showed that single enders can reverse from the Quay without incident and with minimal loss of time.

Casting aside the emotion and sentiment, the rational self will admit the two remaining Ladies have had their day. Sydney's ferry system is not a museum. It's public transport and its future depends on efficient operation. Retiring the Ladies makes a contribution towards this objective.

In an ideal world, the most efficient ferry operation would have one class of vessel. This minimises maintenance costs, crew only need skills currency for one type of vessel and controllers have maximum flexibility in allocating boats across runnings. 

But the world of Sydney ferries is not an ideal one and it is not sensible or possible to use the same vessel class in all our marine environments. As posted previously on this blog, Sydney's waterways have diverse characteristics with four different sets of performance requirements:
  • the ferry to Manly can be subject to big swells when passing the Heads and difficult surge conditions at the Manly terminal.
  • the runs to Watsons Bay and Rose Bay are long and best suited to a high speed ferry. Customers' journey time expectations have been raised by the SuperCats.
  • Inner Harbour routes like Neutral Bay, Mosman and Darling Harbour cover short distances, but with multiple stops and speed restrictions: slower but highly manoeuvrable and fast loading vessels are needed for these conditions.
  • Parramatta River runs are different again with the need for shallow draught and low superstructure to allow ferries to pass under bridges.
So the best option would be to standardise the fleet into four vessel classes. 

Including the Lady boats and the newly acquired (but not yet in service) Heritage Class, there are currently seven (1), with all the inefficiencies inherent with this hotch potch. On top of this is a variety of charter vessels which are brought in to fill gaps in the runnings as needed.

Assuming the Heritage Class is the new standard for the Inner Harbour, it does make sense for the Lady boats to now leave us. Looking 10 or 15 years ahead, it will also be time to farewell the much loved First Fleet Class, so then there will be just one class of vessel operating in the Inner Harbour - the Catherine Hamlin and her many siblings - all with similar performance in speed over water, loading speed, manouevrability and capacity to stay on schedule.

There are those who point to the unique features of the Lady boats. They have a greater passenger capacity than either the First Fleeters or the Heritage Class. The Northcott can carry 800 and the Herron 550, while the newer Inner Harbour boats carry 400. But there is a solution to this, which is more agreeable to passengers. As a passenger, I would prefer a 400 capacity ferry operating at 15 minute intervals to Taronga Zoo than one carrying 800 passengers that runs twice an hour. For 95% of Zoo runs, a capacity of 400 is plenty when operating at 30 minute headways, so why not slot in extra boats for the times when demand requires more capacity? 

Another argument is that they are more fuel efficient than the Heritage Class, which will need to be fueled daily. Well, yes this is a fair point, but that is really a criticism of the performance specs for the Heritage Class. That's a topic for another post.

One of the major limitations of the Ladies is their unsuitability for use at tight manouevring wharves. They are now restricted to the Taronga Zoo and Mosman routes, with capability for Manly runs (Heritage Class vessels can do this too) or special event services to Cockatoo Island. They don't run to Neutral Bay, Balmain, Double Bay or Pyrmont Bay, a significant operational deficiency. 

Simplifying the fleet composition is an important step to making Sydney's ferry system more efficient. Sadly the tough decision to retire the Ladies is a necessary one.
(1) Technically there are at least nine vessel classes because the Herron and Northcott are very different from each other and the youngest Manly ferry, the Collaroy has many technical features which separate it from the rest of the Freshwater Class.

Thursday, 27 April 2017

Sydney's wharf upgrade program: are lessons being learnt?

The upgrade of Sydney's ferry terminal infrastructure started with Milsons Point Wharf in December 2010.  It came as a surprise to many that, just over six years later, Milsons Point is again being upgraded (or "expanded") by the addition of another berth face. This will allow two ferries to berth at the same time, eliminating one of the systemic causes of ferry delays - berthing conflicts between inbound and outbound vessels. 

One of the mysteries surrounding Roads and Maritime Services' (RMS) upgrade program is why this was not done as part of the first upgrade. The closure of the wharf for a further six months and, presumably, duplication of costs are unfortunate. Berthing conflicts between inbound and outbound ferries at Milsons Point, plus access by non regulated ferries and charter boats were significant issues long before 2010. Increasing the frequency of Darling Harbour services in the AM and PM peaks from October 2017 will add to the urgency of this work, but the need was always there.

On the positive side, the design of the new terminal provides a glimpse of what Sydney's wharf infrastructure ought to look like! It will have two separate landing platforms, both with outside berth faces only. 

Source: Roads and Maritime Services, NSW

All other dual berthing intermediate stop wharves designed to date by RMS have been single pontoons with capacity for vessels to berth on either side. McMahons Point and Balmain East are examples of this. But these double sided landings have a significant disadvantage, which RMS notes in its Review of Environmental Factors for the Expansion of Milsons Point Wharf: (a double sided landing) "would require ferries to reverse out of the inside face berth." 

An urban transit ferry line with multiple intermediate stops must ensure maximum efficiency in the line of approach of vessels to a wharf.  Reversing should be avoided wherever possible as it adds unnecessary time into the run cycle and slows the journey for passengers. 

This was figured out a long time ago in the Brisbane Ferries network, where none of the dual berthing wharves have double sided landings. They are either long single pontoons with sufficient room for two outside berth faces or they use two pontoons, similar to Milsons Point (except the landings at Milsons Point are actually hydraulic platforms, not floating pontoons).

A further disadvantage of the double sided pontoon is they are prone to crowding problems. The pontoon may need to accommodate two groups of passengers waiting to embark and enable disembarking passengers from two vessels to exit quickly at the same time. Not an easy task with one small pontoon.

Curiously, RMS has persisted with the concept of a single double pontoon for the soon to be upgraded Cockatoo Island Wharf, despite acknowledging its deficiencies in relation to Milsons Point. The plan for Cockatoo Island is shown below.

Source: Roads and Maritime Services, NSW
And it must be said that the expanded Milsons Point wharf is not without flaws, either. It may give a glimpse of what a dual berthing wharf should look like, but the two landing platforms are unfortunately far too small for a high demand stop. I can't imagine there is enough room for the stern and midships gangways on First Fleet or Heritage Class ferries to be used, which is really necessary to manage large crowds.

There is no question that the RMS wharf upgrade program is making improvements to the operation of the Sydney Ferries network. We have yet to see in Sydney, however, the level of thoughtfulness of design which is evident in the Brisbane Ferries system. This comes at a cost to taxpayers and means the network is less useful to passengers.

Wednesday, 19 April 2017

White Bay Ferry? Yes, but with connections and fairer fares

The idea of introducing a high frequency ferry between White Bay and Barangaroo is gathering support. Both Sydney’s Lord Mayor, Clover Moore, and the former mayor of the former Leichhardt Council, Darcy Byrne, both advocated for a new ferry service last week. The soon to be opened wharves at Barangaroo South are an easy five minute walk to Sydney’s rail network via Wynyard Walk. This makes ferries a logical solution for the hard to get to White Bay Power Station site.

Ferries offer many advantages over other modes. The cost of new wharves and vessels is less than the new infrastructure required for light rail or metro rail and less disruptive in the construction phase. And ferries don’t contribute to road congestion as buses do. New routes and stops can be introduced quickly, which New York City is demonstrating right now as it rolls out its Citywide Ferry service, extending from a single East River ferry to a six route structure.

The common complaint that ferries don’t operate frequently enough is a criticism of current policy, not the mode. Brisbane Ferries run every 7.5 minutes in peak periods and 15 minutes outside of the peaks and there is not a technical reason why a ferry shuttle between White Bay and Barangaroo should not also operate at high frequency. 

But let’s take care. Public transport is efficient and useful when planned and managed as a connected network. As recently observed by American planner Jarrett Walker “(there is) an unthinking real-estate world view in which transit is a feature of a site, like parks.  In fact, transit quality lies in a site’s position in a network, and it is the network, not the immediately proximate features, that delivers all valuable transit outcomes.” 

In other words, don’t dollop public transport on precincts like jam and cream on scones. It probably won’t work.

The integrated pulse timetables of Switzerland are a great example of how good connections are the key to building a successful public transport network. If ferries are to play a grown up role in serving the Bays Precinct, then we need to learn some lessons from the Swiss and build better line connections and improve links with other modes of transport.

When more than one ferry line intersect at an interchange, the customer should expect ferry to ferry transfers to be timed conveniently. In the case of the White Bay ferry, quality connections at Barangaroo with the Parramatta River and Circular Quay ferries are critical. This would best be achieved by moving the existing Pyrmont Bay wharf 340 metres north, to the end of Pyrmont’s Pier 8 and make it an intermediate stop on the line from Barangaroo to White Bay. This would prevent the stop becoming a "detour" for White Bay passengers.

Possible line configuration for a White Bay ferry service

I have previously proposed an integrated pulse timetable at Circular Quay also, offering seamless connections between all ferry routes terminating at the Quay.

There is too the issue of fares. Under the current Opal card fare structure, an adult passenger will pay $5.74 for the 2.2 km ferry ride from White Bay to Barangaroo and $11.48 return. That’s more than double the equivalent bus fare. Incredibly, off peak rail travellers from Central to Newcastle pay just $5.81 for a 160 km train ride, just five cents more than the fare for the shortest ferry ride.

For waterborne transport to be a serious solution, it is imperative that Sydney catches up with other international cities and ceases to make distinctions between mode in its fare structures. The extra complexity is hardly justified by the small differences in operating costs. In its review of the Opal fare structure in 2016, the NSW Independent Pricing and Regulatory Tribunal (IPART) recommended the synchronisation of light rail fare prices with buses, ahead of the CBD and South East Light Rail (CSELR) starting. IPART explained that this was for “simplicity”, noting that light rail trips made up a small component of all public transport journeys. When the CSELR commences, light rail will carry more passengers than ferries, but IPART failed to see merit in applying the simplicity argument to ferries as well as light rail.

Yes, a high frequency ferry between Barangaroo and White Bay makes a lot of sense, but only if ferries are moved out of the toy section of Sydney’s public transport policy. Creating consistent timed connections between the White Bay ferry and other ferries terminating at Barangaroo would be a good start. And why not go further and remove the difference in fares between ferries and buses?

IPART may clutch to its bosom the delusion that price signals make public transport more efficient, but it is actually good planning that will reduce costs and make ferries more useful.