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Tuesday, 28 November 2017

The verdict on Sydney's Cross Harbour ferry service

Sydney Ferries' Cross Harbour route
There is the germ of a good idea in the new Sydney Ferry  timetable which came into effect last Sunday. Effective public transport networks provide multi-destination travel, not just a trip to and from a terminal in the central business district. That’s because most of our journeys don’t have the city centre as a destination. We’re more likely to need to go somewhere on the other side of the city or to another suburb that’s not directly between where we are and the city terminal.

But Sydney’s transport networks, including ferries, have an unrelenting CBD focus. It’s one of the reasons the city remains addicted to the private motor car.

Transport for NSW should be congratulated therefore for trying something different in the new ferry timetable. The Watsons Bay and Darling Harbour lines have been joined together into a Cross Harbour service. Circular Quay is not the “end of the line”, but the mid-point of a route that starts on one side of the city and terminates at the other. A passenger from Rose Bay, for example, can now travel to Milsons Point, Balmain East or Barangaroo, and back, without changing to a different vessel. This is known as “through lining” and although it is a well established method elsewhere for facilitating cross town trips, it has never been tried before in the 164 year history of Sydney Ferries.

On top of this, the way that extra services are scheduled for Double Bay means there are now all day timed connections at Circular Quay between this line and the Cockatoo Island route. It’s not quite as easy for passengers to navigate as a through line, but anyone from Double Bay with an aunt at Greenwich Point really has no excuse for not visiting her now. The transfer wait at the Quay is between 8 and 10 minutes, all day, seven days a week. 
Double Bay and Cockatoo Island routes. Timed transfers at Circular Quay

If a criticism could be leveled at the strategic intent, it is that Transport for NSW did not go all the way and make timed connections for all lines at Circular Quay. This is known as integrated pulse timetabling and it’s the backbone of the Swiss public transport system. It’s also the basis for a plan to make a ten-fold increase in intercity train patronage in California by 2040.

But the germ of a good idea is only fruitful if it is nurtured with attention to detail. This is where the Cross Harbour service failed on Sunday, with vessels falling behind schedule due to the tight timetable and customary Sunday crowds causing loading times to blow out. Vessel swaps by Harbour City Ferries protected passengers from longer delays, but the fact remains that the new timetable developed by Transport for NSW is unachievable, except when demand is light.

Problems with the timetable were anticipated in a previous post

The Cross Harbour service worked much better on Monday and today, despite some clunky crew changes. The impact of these were minimal due to light passenger loadings in Darling Harbour. 

Crews will get used to the new timetable over time and gain more confidence in handling the new vessels. Perhaps wrinkles in the crewing arrangements will be sorted too. But it remains unlikely that the Cross Harbour will work smoothly when there is high demand on a week-end or school holidays.

It is unrealistic to expect no teething problems in a major timetable change. Even allowing for this, there seems to be a lack tenacity in getting the details right in Sydney’s ferry planning. And it's not just the timetable. How much thought goes into strategies to reduce the time it takes for vessels to berth or for passengers to be loaded? When expensive infrastructure projects are undertaken, like wharf upgrades and fleet replacement, does someone have a vision for how the design of vessels and terminals can better integrate over the long term? What is the plan for reducing congestion in Sydney Cove, which according to the Office of Transport Safety Investigations is a significant safety risk?

Through lining may never be a reliable option for Sydney Ferries, so long as our vessels and wharves are not designed for fast passenger exchange, a basic requirement of modern public transport systems. Perhaps the silly name given to our newest ferry points to a deeper malaise. Planning for waterborne transport in Sydney is not given the serious attention it deserves and requires.

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