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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.

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