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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.