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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.     


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