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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. 


  1. Indeed I think this proposal looks a sketchy. I am sure you are right on the walking. The additional recovery time required en route to maintain reliability between the Quay and B’roo (I’d guess 4 minutes + 2 minutes to transact passengers) will result in a an uncompetitive run time against walking for the CBD North and East of the new terminal.
    Also over-servicing the B’roo to Quay with more frequent and bigger ferries seems to be a misallocation of resources.
    Surely integrated timetabling to provide efficient interchange at the Quay would offer better reliability and demand matching (say for origin-dest pair where ferries should be able to offer an advantage, e.g. Rose Bay- Milsons Pt- McMahons Pt).
    Strikes me as a bizarre operations and reliability risk to take with what is now a lucrative route, and one that is contested by cheaper bus and bus/train journeys.

    1. The change is presented as a way of connecting the North Shore to the Eastern Suburbs, and it does partly do this because you can walk to Milsons Point station from the Milsons Point Wharf, but it does not assist Neutral Bay or Mosman ferry users.