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Friday, 2 March 2018

The case for simplifying Sydney's ferry network

Sydney’s waterborne transport network is growing. Commuters on the Manly Fast Ferry now enjoy a service every 10 minutes in the peaks and 20 minutes off peak. Captain Cook Cruises have extended their commuter offerings to Watsons Bay and now run regular timetabled services to the International Convention Centre and White Bay plus direct trips between Darling Harbour and Manly.

Services under the subsidised Sydney Ferries’ contract have also expanded with higher frequencies for Parramatta River runs and a more regular Eastern Suburbs timetable. Passenger comfort and convenience have lifted with six new Emerald Class ferries joining the fleet and a new terminal at Barangaroo. Redevelopment of Circular Quay is imminent.

But what may not be widely appreciated is how complex the Sydney ferry system has become. The complexity is partly due to Sydney’s diverse maritime environment. This makes differences in vessel design requirements unavoidable. The form of a ferry passing by Sydney Heads to Manly is not suited for operations in the calm, shallow waters of the Parramatta River or the narrow coves of the inner harbour. The problem is compounded by past ad hoc decisions on wharf infrastructure, network design and fleet replacement. There has also been a somewhat laissez faire approach to approving non regulated services.

Complexity has serious consequences. It has led to a poor fit between the design of vessels and wharves so passenger exchange is slow and needlessly adds time to journeys. Complexity makes operations more expensive with the cost ultimately borne by taxpayers who pay for operator subsidies. And Sydney Cove has become dangerously congested and is sorely in need of de-cluttering.

Above all, it is confusing and inconvenient for passengers. Your Opal card works on some trips but not others and there is no guarantee of a convenient bus connection or ferry to ferry transfer. It can be plain hard to get to where you need to go at a time that suits you.

Back in the 1970’s, engineers tackled the problem of complexity in another field of technology. Computers were becoming so complex that it was no longer practical for a person or single team to quickly build a complete system. To overcome this, the overall architecture of computers started to be designed to accommodate modularity. Different parts of a computer could be built by independent teams or firms so long as they followed explicit rules for integration. We are reminded daily of this advance through the magic of smartphone apps.

Modularity in the computing industry saved money and enabled the technology to evolve quickly.

The same principles can also be applied to public transport technology. Sydney’s ferry system could be so much more efficient and more useful for passengers if its architecture was also modular.

How? In a modular ferry system, services with similar requirements for speed, freeboard (vessel deck height above water level), passenger capacity and other vessel design parameters are grouped into separate “chunks”. For the main current local operator, Harbour City Ferries, the most logical arrangement is to split its network into four modules – outer harbour (Manly); Watsons Bay/ Rose Bay; inner harbour and Parramatta River - and for this structure to be reflected in the design of the redeveloped Circular Quay.

Modularisation simplifies. The team managing and seeking to improve one module can do so without disruption to or by other modules. Instead of wharves being a “one size fits all” compromise, they can be customised to match exactly the requirements of a particular vessel class. Wharf 3 at Circular Quay is already designed especially for the Freshwater Class Manly Ferry and works very effectively in loading and unloading large numbers of passengers. But other wharves at the Quay need to be customised too. For example, Wharf 2 could be adapted for high speed catamarans with a high freeboard. If each pontoon at the Quay was tuned to a particular vessel class, passenger exchange could be sped up significantly.

Non-subsidised operators can continue under this model, but they too should comply with rules for integration. These include timetables which make it easy for passengers to transfer from one service to another and full ticket integration. The fare structure must not penalise a passenger for transferring between ferries, or from a ferry to a bus or train, in order to complete a single journey. 

To fix the congestion problem in Sydney Cove, it may also be necessary to reconfigure some routes to reduce the number of ferry lines terminating at Circular Quay.

One of the strengths of modular networks is their adaptability. Future demand is hard to predict, but a modular network can be easily extended to meet demand fluctuations over time. For ferries that may mean adding a module or increasing service frequency in an existing module. Sydney’s developing Bays Precinct, including the Fish Markets, Glebe Point and White Bay, is a logical candidate for a new module. Seamless integration with the rest of the ferry network could be accomplished with timed transfers at Barangaroo to ferries headed for Parramatta and Circular Quay. Low emission, full electric ferry systems are now operating in Europe and could be ideal for use in the Bays Precinct. Independent but integrated, the Bays Precinct services could be run by either an existing or new operator.

There is a place for multiple ferry operators on Sydney Harbour, but the time has come for proper integration under a unified, modular network plan. This should be the number one policy priority for Sydney ferries. It is then possible to turn attention to the infrastructure required to support the network, including design of a redeveloped Circular Quay.

Note: this is a longer, more technical version of a short opinion piece published in the Sydney Morning Herald on Friday 2 March 2018. For those who would like to read more about modularity in design, I strongly recommend a book by Baldwin and Clark, “Design Rules: the power of modularity”.

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