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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.

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