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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.

Tuesday, 11 April 2017

Getting Ferry Passenger Exchange Right

I have long lamented how slowly Sydney ferries load and unload passengers. This delays services, causes connections to be missed and it's a cost burden for both the operator and taxpayers. The problem will be felt more accutely by passengers on the new Darling Harbour to Watsons Bay route, which starts in October. A long dwell at Circular Quay will prove very annoying for those wishing to travel the full distance from Barangaroo to Watsons Bay and return.
Source: Sydney Ferries Annual Report 2011-12. Note distance between pontoon and vessel decks
The problem stems from a variety of causes:

  • variation between freeboard (distance from the water line to the deck) across vessel classes. Wharf pontoons are set at a compromise height, which is somewhere between the high freeboard of a SuperCat and the low freeboard of a First Fleeter. This means manually deployed gangplanks must be used to bridge the gap; 
  • water can by messy at some wharves (the vessel itself can drag in wash), so a gangplank is necessary for safety in any case;
  • the internal layout of Sydney's ferries can restrict pedestrian flows and delay embarkation;
  • Egress from ramps at Circular Quay (especially wharves 2, 4 and 5) is restricted by cafes and crib rooms. On busy days, passengers trying to exit the ramps are confronted by a wall of passengers queuing to board. This also happens at King Street Darling Harbour and Pyrmont Bay, simply because the pontoons are too small with no physical separation of boarding and disembarking passengers.
There is no simple solution and improvements already under way should help. The internal layout of the new Heritage Class vessels is more open and passengers should load more quickly through the two doorways on each side of the main deck. The pontoons for the new Barangaroo terminal are much bigger than at the current King Street wharf.

But can more be done? Some overseas practices suggest we can do better.

Take the example of the Vancouver SeaBus. It takes 12 minutes for the double ended, 400 capacity ferry to make the crossing from downtown Vancouver to the north shore. There's a turnaround of two minutes at one terminal and four minutes at the other. 

How is it possible for 400 passengers to unload and another 400 to load in less than two minutes?

The Vancouver SeaBus was introduced in 1977. The service covers a distance of 3.2 km and is operated by a double ended catamaran with an operating speed of 13 knots - about the same as a Sydney First Fleet ferry. With this relatively modest speed over water, wash is minimised and fuel efficiency is much better than a faster boat. 

Where speed is achieved is in the turnaround component of the cycle time. Careful attention was obviously given to planning the passenger exchange process. The vessels have six double doors on either side and the two terminals are designed to load passengers on one side while passengers disembark on the other side.

Image from Vuchic (2007), "Urban Transit Systems and Technology"

It would be naive to think the same system would work in Sydney, with diverse maritime conditions and vessel requirements. And terminals like those used by the Vancouver SeaBus take up more space per berth than the current Circular Quay configuration. Even when the Quay is redeveloped, it's unlikely to be acceptable to have a terminal with fewer berths than the current design. 

This should not dissuade us from trying to improve passenger exchange on Sydney's ferries. The Manly Fast Ferries have already shown initiative by using four gangways on its services. Perhaps too there could be a rearrangement of berths at Circular Quay so vessels with the same freeboard used the same pontoon, so pontoon deck heights could be better aligned with vessels. 

These and other improvements need to be considered as part of the redevelopment of Circular Quay and future fleet acquisitions. But for this to happen, passenger exchange must be viewed as a strategic priority in Sydney's ferry planning process.     


Tuesday, 28 March 2017

Is merging the Darling Harbour and Watsons Bay lines a good idea?

Regular users of the Darling Harbour ferry will welcome the route changes announced today by Transport Minister Andrew Constance. The change will see a merging of the existing Watsons Bay and Rose Bay services into the F4 Darling Harbour line and operated by the new nippy (26 knot) Heritage Class ferries.

You will be able to take a ferry to Rose Bay or Watsons Bay from Pyrmont Bay, Barangaroo, Balmain East, McMahons Point or Milsons Point without transferring at Circular Quay. Even better, you will actually be able to ride the ferry from Pyrmont Bay to Barangaroo. It is currently an annoying loop, which allows passengers to go from King Street wharf to Pyrmont Bay, but not back again.

But closer scrutiny suggests the change has some downsides too.

If the hard to manoeuvre new Heritage Class boats can handle the reversing from Pyrmont Bay quickly (there’s no guarantee her issues in dealing with high winds have been or will ever be solved), then making it possible for passengers to return to Barangaroo from Pyrmont Bay will be a big improvement.

I love through lines, and the merger of Watsons Bay services with Darling Harbour is a through line, but will this particular marriage be a happy one? I’m not so sure.

What is not revealed in the media release is that there will not actually be peak services to Watsons Bay. Commuters from Watsons Bay will continue to be serviced by a non regulated Captain Cook ferry direct to Circular Quay. In peak periods, the line will terminate in the east at Rose Bay in the peaks as they do now and operate every 20 minutes. This means the Darling Harbour section of the route also needs to offer 20 minute headways, even though morning peak capacity is currently 25% at best with 30 minute headways. Does Darling Harbour really need a ferry every 20 minutes in the AM peak? Probably not. Although the DH PM peaks are swelled by tourists in summer, even then I don’t recall a Darling Harbour boat reaching capacity during a week-day PM peak.

There are better candidates for through lines in Sydney. One of them is Darling Harbour and Taronga Zoo as both have similar tourist profiles and could be joined into a single through line on a 90 minute cycle with 30 minute headways, increasing to 15 minutes for high demand tourist periods. There would also be an option to extend the cycle to 120 minutes by adding an extension from Barangaroo to White Bay. But then that would mean retaining the SuperCats as there won’t be enough Heritage Class ferries to operate both the Zoo-Darling Harbour service and the Rose Bay/ Watson Bay service. I am in the camp that believes Sydney should retain the SuperCats.

What Rose Bay ferry commuters may not realise is that the journey to their new office in Barangaroo each morning will be a long one with a lot of intermediate stops. It’s about 11 minutes from Rose Bay to Circular Quay on a fast ferry. This will be followed by a 3 or 4 minute wait to unload passengers then a further 21 minutes with three stops before arriving at Barangaroo. That’s a total journey of 35 or 36 minutes. And a lot of people in the Rose Bay area think they live in the 30 minute city! It may actually be quicker to alight at Circular Quay, take the train to Wynyard and wander down to your Barangaroo office through the Wynyard Walk.

And the long standing complaint about lack of Sydney Ferry peak services to Watsons Bay - which is that on week-days, even Friday nights, the last Sydney Ferry departs Watsons Bay at 4.45 pm – will presumably not be addressed by these changes.

These may seem like trifling objections, but there is a bigger issue. Yes, through lines are a good idea, but in isolation they can be just a kludge. Wouldn’t it make more sense to reconfigure the entire ferry network into a pulse timetable, with all services which meet at Circular Quay having convenient transfer times? We would then have something very close to a city with a go from anywhere/ go to anywhere ferry network. Just like public transport in other grown up cities.