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Sunday, 10 December 2017

So much data, so little information

There is some information about public transport networks which most us would expect to be freely available. Patronage[1], which is the number of passenger journeys on a network over a period of time, usually monthly and annually, is an example of this type of information.

It’s not just the absolute number that’s important, but also the trend over time. What is the growth in patronage over 10 years? Or is it declining? How does growth on one mode compare with others? Does the growth vary between lines? Is the growth in peak periods or off peak?

You might assume that patronage in New South Wales is nothing more than a count of Opal card tap ons or ticket sales, but this was never the case and it’s not now. As well as Opal tap ons, patronage includes an estimate of non-ticketed journeys, untapped school student travel and integrated ticketing special event travel.

Sydney Ferries’ patronage figures used to be made available by a part of Transport for NSW known as the Bureau of Transport Statistics or BTS. BTS published a lot of information on its website about Sydney Ferries, including monthly patronage by service area (Manly, Inner Harbour and Parramatta River) going back six or seven years. It also released data from a seven day census taken twice a year of passenger boardings and disembarkations by wharf, service and time of day. It even provided the name of the vessel and its capacity, so if you knew what you were doing, you could estimate capacity utilisation by service.

Summaries of the ferry census were produced by the BTS, showing trends in passenger loadings by time of day, individual routes and wharves.

I liked dealing with the BTS. I was never in doubt that they were on the side of transparency, high standards and the pursuit of knowledge. 

The BTS was restructured in 2016 into Transport Performance and Analytics (TPA). The old was swept away with promises that even better information would be released, thanks to the higher quality Opal data now available. And a new website, Open Data, was created to make it easier for advanced users to download Opal and a range of information from other “big data” sources.

So where does that leave us with ferry patronage? There is a data visualisation on the TPA website called “Historical Patronage Counts”, which shows NSW patronage by mode and financial year, back to 2010-11. The 2016-17 count for ferries is 16.009 million, up from 15.410 million in the previous year. The explanatory notes inform that ferry patronage includes Opal journeys, magnetic stripe ticket validations (July 2016 only) and an estimate of non ticketed journeys. No problems there, except that the number for 2016-17 includes Newcastle ferry patronage. This amounts to about 470,000, give or take 50,000, so Sydney Ferries patronage last year was actually somewhere between 15.5 and 15.6 million, or only a little more than 2015-16.

What the heck?

After a series of polite email exchanges with someone at TPA, who describes him or herself only as “TPA Inbox Manager”, I’ve reached the conclusion that the taxpayers of New South Wales will never find out exactly what Sydney Ferries patronage was in 2016-17. It will only be published at the “top line level” - a total for Sydney Ferries and Newcastle Ferries and will remain forever incompatible with the counts for all previous years. Not only don’t we know what the patronage was precisely, but the historical patronage chart compares apples with pears. Or apples with apples plus grapes.

It could be argued that this is all just pedantry on my part. Who cares if Sydney Ferries’ patronage is 15.5 million or 15.6 million, or if Newcastle ferry numbers are lumped in from July 2016. Near enough is good enough. And anyway, TPA does provide monthly counts of Opal trips by line and fare category, which the BTS did not publish.

Even if I am a pedant, there are more serious concerns about information transparency. I naively welcomed the promise of granular level opal trip information. Rather than rely on a seven day census count, twice a year, we could now expect more accurate Opal tap data over 365 days of the year, with origin-destination pairs.

Well, it has yet to happen. The little snippets made available on the Open Data site is subject to strict privacy controls. The counts of tap ons and offs for individual wharves in 15 minute “bins” are only reported if the value is 18 or more. In practice, the vast majority of wharves have very few 15 minute bins which qualify, so the data is of little analytical value. And the latest counts available are from January 2017, almost a year ago.

I asked a planner at Transport for NSW last year if he was worried about the 20% decline in ferry commuter patronage in the AM peaks (that information used to be available from the BTS published ferry census data). “No,” he replied,“the latest Opal data shows a big turnaround. But it’s information that only TfNSW has access to”.

The news that commuter ferry patronage is growing again was of course very reassuring, although it would be good if the information was published. Then everyone can access detailed patronage data to see for themselves how demand for Sydney Ferries’ services is trending.

I miss the BTS.

[1] Americans call it ridership, which is probably a better word, but I’m Australian so I’ll stick with patronage

Sunday, 3 December 2017

New wharf at Milsons Point

Upgraded wharf at Milsons Point: view towards western landing platform
When it was announced late last year that the Milsons Point wharf was to be upgraded, many were surprised it was happening so soon after the last rebuild. It was only in 2010 that the wharf was completely rebuilt. And some people complain about a sports stadium being knocked down after 20 years!

The main reason for the 2017 upgrade was to add a second landing platform, a need that most would have thought could have been anticipated back in 2010. Milsons Point is a busy wharf both in passenger numbers and vessel berthings as it is a stop for Darling Harbour ferries, Parramatta River ferries in the AM and PM peaks and non regulated ferries and party boats. Without two landing platforms, it gets congested. And separation of the landing platforms minimises pedestrian crushes.
Plan of Milsons Point Wharf. Source: RMS Review of Environmental Factors  

The 2017 version of Milsons Point wharf opened on Sunday 26 November.

There are some good features in the design. Unlike other dual berthing wharves designed by Roads and Maritime Services (RMS) this one has two separate landing platforms, with the berth faces roughly in line with each other and separated by about 60 metres. This means if two vessels berth at the same time, neither of them need to make a time wasting reversing manouevre.

And there are other good points too. The height of the hydraulic landing platforms automatically adjust to the freeboard of the incoming vessel. Signage and indicator boards are effective and make clear which ramp passengers should use to catch the right ferry. Passenger ingress and egress is improved and passengers are able to use steps as well as ramps to exit the wharf, which should reduce pedestrian congestion. 

But for all these improvements there is still, even after a second go at building the wharf, a serious flaw - the landing platforms are too small. The new Emerald Class vessels have capacity to use two double gangways - midships and stern - which would allow for very fast loading and unloading of passengers. Unfortunately, neither of the landing platforms look big enough to allow one double gangway to be manouevred, let alone two.
Eastern landing platform of Milsons Point Wharf
This deficiency probably adds minutes to the dwell at Milsons Point when large crowds are using the wharf. On a return trip from Circular Quay, that could be an extra four or five minutes in an already tight schedule.

The NSW State Government is investing a lot in new transport infrastructure. While the new Milsons Point wharf is definitely an improvement on the 2010 version, it still falls short on that most vital of criteria, the speed of passenger exchange. We really should expect better.

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.

Thursday, 2 November 2017

More on the Sydney Ferry Timetable Changes

There is an issue with the 26 November timetable changes which was not addressed in the previous post - the capacity of ferries to keep to time in the Darling Harbour section of the new Cross Harbour route. As previously discussed, the Cross Harbour route is a "through line", which joins Watsons Bay and Rose Bay with the Darling Harbour route via Circular Quay. 

Currently, the time allocated for the Darling Harbour route off peak is 59 minutes, from departure at Circular Quay to arrival at the Quay on return. Under the new timetable, this is reduced to 55 minutes, even though there is one additional stop - ferries will stop at Barangaroo in the inbound and outbound direction. They now stop at Barangaroo only when outbound from Circular Quay.

It may be argued that the new vessels operating the route - the Emeralds - have the extra speed and acceleration needed to shave four minutes off the journey compared to the slower First Fleeters now used. It is true the Emeralds will be faster between McMahons Point and Balmain East where there are no speed restrictions, but I'm doubtful they will always be able to complete the round trip in 55 minutes:

  • speed restrictions of 8 or 15 knots are enforced over most of the route, so in these sections the Emerald boats will not have a speed advantage;
  • there is no evidence yet that the Emerald Class is more manouevrable than the First Fleeters. They appear to me to be less manouevrable, lacking the twin rudder feature of the older vessels, so berthing the new boats at intermediate stops may actually be slower;
  • the extra stop at Barangaroo will add at least two or three minutes to the running time;
  • the new timetable has departures from Balmain East to Circular Quay and to Barangaroo scheduled only one minute apart. This creates a conflict, unless one vessel berths on the western side of the pontoon. This too will have a small delaying effect.
Taking all of these issues in combination, it is hard to envisage the ferries being able to keep to time during periods of heavy loading, especially on week-ends. As pointed out by one of my correspondents, David Caldwell, there is minimal recovery time at Circular Quay, so any delay on the Darling Harbour stage will have flow on effects for Watsons Bay and Rose Bay passengers.  

Monday, 16 October 2017

Sydney Ferry Timetable Changes Reviewed

Changes to the Sydney Ferry timetable were announced yesterday and take effect from Sunday 26 November. 

The main changes affect the existing Eastern Suburbs and Darling Harbour routes. An announcement by the NSW Government earlier in the year foreshadowed the main modifications, but yesterday's release provides all the details

  • Services to Darling Point and Double Bay will become an entirely separate route from the Watsons Bay/Rose Bay line. Under the current timetable, Darling Point is only serviced week-days in the AM and PM peaks. Double Bay has some off peak services, but they are irregular at best. The new timetable will give Darling Point and Double Bay passengers a 60 minute interval service in the off peak, seven days a week.
  • Watsons Bay and Rose Bay will become stops on a "through line" to be known as the Cross Harbour route. It merges Watson Bay and Rose Bay services with the existing Darling Harbour route. Passengers from Watsons Bay or Rose Bay will be able to travel on the same vessel to Darling Harbour, via Circular Quay, Milsons Point, McMahons Point and Balmain East. The new route terminates at its western end at Pyrmont Bay. Barangaroo becomes an intermediate stop rather than a terminus. Watsons Bay remains an "off peak only" stop with Captain Cook cruises continuing to provide a commuter peak service to this wharf.
  • A second stopping pattern will operate on week-ends between Circular Quay and Darling Harbour, with stops at Milsons Point, Barangaroo and Pyrmont Bay only. This pattern will operate at 30 minute intervals, lifting the frequency of services between CQ and Barangaroo to 15 minutes on week-ends (currently 20 minutes).
  • Cockatoo Island formally becomes a separate route from the Parramatta line. Late evening services to Balmain (Thames Street), Birchgrove, Greenwich and Woolwich will no longer be add ons to the Parramatta River runs.


Overall, the changes are moving Sydney's ferry network in a positive direction. There is clearly a strategy to create a more legible timetable with greater effort to achieve consistent clock-face scheduling. This has partly been accomplished by the acquisition of new Inner Harbour Emerald Class ferries, which provide more flexibility in the runnings.

This improvement is highlighted by the off peak Rose Bay timetable. Passengers from Rose Bay should be pleased to see that off peak sailings in the direction of Circular Quay
will always now depart at 29 and 59 minutes past the hour, reducing to a 60 minute interval (29 minutes past the hour) after 19:29. Simple and easy to remember.

But there is room for improvement.

Through lining is good in principle, but the combination of Watsons Bay and Darling Harbour is not ideal as the two routes have different demand profiles. This is discussed further in a previous post. Until Watsons Bay wharf is upgraded there is a risk also that delays at Watsons Bay will cause flow on punctuality issues for the Darling Harbour section of the line.

There are also some specific issues of concern revealed in the details released yesterday:

  • departures from Rose Bay in the direction of Watsons Bay are almost all scheduled one minute after departures in the direction of Circular Quay. Rose Bay is a single berth pontoon and scheduling the two so closely together will cause delays. Departures from a single berth should be at least four minutes apart. On a quick calculation, this feature will affect 113 services a week and cause vessels to sit idly off Rose Bay for a total of more than five hours every week.
  • Darling Point passengers are big winners from the new timetable, but will be affected by a curious feature. Off peak services will only stop at Darling Point in the inbound direction until 12:25 week-days and 13:25 week-ends. Outbound off peak ferries only stop there from 13:10 week-days and 14:10 week-ends. It could be argued that those who need to travel to or from Darling Point at other times can go via Double Bay first, but I'm not convinced it's necessary. The Double Bay cycle provides a five minute layover at Double Bay and a stop at Darling Point will only add two minutes to the journey.
  • Having two stopping patterns for the Darling Harbour section of the Cross Harbour route on week-ends is less than ideal. Simplicity is almost always better than complexity. I expect it will cause confusion and some lost ferry passengers.
The general progression to a more legible Sydney Ferry network is welcome. What we don't see yet, apart from the "Cross Harbour" experiment, is improved line connectivity at Circular Quay.  Why not take the periodicity a little bit further and adopt a fully integrated pulse timetable?  

Wednesday, 20 September 2017

Benefits of Regular Interval Timetables: Part 2 Efficiency

Most ferry passengers probably don't care much about efficiency. Inefficiency is usually not visible and nor are the consequences. 

But the efficient use of assets and resources, especially labour, makes a big difference to the cost of running a ferry system and impacts on the economics of new routes or service frequency on existing ones. That's why everyone should be very concerned about operational efficiency.

From the operator's perspective, a key efficiency measure is the ratio between crew roster hours and ferry service hours. It is desirable in each roster line to increase the time crews spend driving vessels on timetabled services and reduce time in non revenue earning activities.  Some non revenue earning hours are essential, including mandatory crib (meal) breaks, positioning trips and training and safety drills, but minimising "sitting around" time can make significant savings for the operator and the taxpayers who subsidise the operator.

So how does a timetable impact on efficiency?

If a timetable follows an irregular pattern, and vessels can return to a hub at any time, long periods of down time in excess of mandatory crib breaks are almost inevitable. It is unlikely that the period between finishing a run before a crib break or restarting after the break will correspond exactly to the mandatory time allowed for breaks. 

By contrast, a regular interval timetable is modular.  In a 30 minute interval network, vessels return to a hub a few minutes before the hour and half hour and depart a few minutes after the hour and half hour. This means crib breaks can always occur in neat 30 or 60 minute blocks with minimal wastage.

This level of modularity is only possible in a regular interval timetable.

Further efficiency improvement can be made by stopping the practice of resting vessels when the crew take a crib break. If crews returning from a crib break are assigned to whatever vessel needs crewing, then vessels would achieve higher utilisation rates and reduce requirements for berthing capacity at busy terminals like Circular Quay.

The upside for passengers is that all of these efficiency gains would make expansion of the ferry network more attractive to Government. And that means a better customer experience.


Monday, 11 September 2017

Six Benefits of Regular Interval Timetables - Part 1 Customer Experience

What is a regular interval timetable?

It is a rail, bus or ferry timetable that operates at a fixed time interval all day - say every 30 minutes. An integrated regular interval timetable goes a step further by also ensuring passengers have a short wait time at hubs before transferring to another service or mode.

A network wide regular interval timetable was first introduced on the Netherlands rail network in 1932, but it was the Swiss Federal Railways who took it to a new level of sophistication. This happened from 1982 with the first iteration of Taktfahrplan, which loosely translates in English to "pulse timetable".

The simplified network diagram below illustrates how it works in practice:
A 30 minute regular interval timetable with connecting nodes
The example shows a two line rail network operating at 30 minute intervals. Trains on the Red Line arrive at Station F shortly before the hour and half hour. Trains on the Blue Line cross at Station F on the hour and half hour, enabling passengers from the Red Line to transfer to a Blue Line train travelling in either direction (towards Station E or H). 

The Red Line train departs Station F shortly afterwards, providing convenient connections for transferring passengers from both the Blue Line trains.

Any crossover point in the network (in this example, they occur at 15 and 45 minutes past the hour), creates opportunities for similar symmetrical transfers to other modes, such as the bus line shown connecting at Station C. 

What is unique about the Swiss approach is the importance of Taktfahrplan as a strategic driver of transport planning - convenient timetables with timed transfers at network nodes underpin the entire public transport network. They are devised 20 years in advance of implementation and help set priorities for infrastructure upgrades. Technology is not the driver, but a means to achieve a purpose, which is to improve the performance of the timetable.  

Regular interval timetables are ideally suited to urban transit ferry systems. They make ferry travel easier for customers and simplify operations, leading to lower subsidies by taxpayers. But with the notable exception of Brisbane Ferries, the concept has not been embraced in Australia. Perhaps it's because the benefits are not well understood. 

Benefit 1 - a better customer experience through simplicity and connections

Benefit 1 is really two benefits, but they are closely related. Simiplicity comes from the regularity of the timetable - the service always departs from a stop at the same minute interval every hour, so it is easy to remember the timetable. But because it is also a pulse timetable, timed connections at interchanges are also regular and consistent.

The following example shows how easy it would be to navigate across the Sydney ferry network, if it was based on these principles. 

Let's imagine you live at Elizabeth Bay and a ferry now stops at Elizabeth Bay twice an hour. The ferry departs for the downtown terminal at Circular Quay 15 minutes before and 15 minutes after the hour, every hour. In the outbound direction - towards Double Bay - it departs 12 minutes before and 18 minutes past the hour.

If you arrived at Elizabeth Bay Wharf 15 minutes before the hour, what destinations could you conveniently reach by ferry and how long would it take?

Within 15 minutes you could be at Circular Quay or any other stop on the Double Bay line.
As all ferries arrive at Circular Quay a few minutes before the hour and depart a few minutes after the hour, you would be able to transfer at the Quay to the Manly Ferry or any Inner Harbour ferry with just a short waiting time. This means that within a further 15 minutes, seven more destinations can be reached.
And in another ten minutes - 40 minutes since the journey started at Elizabeth Bay - a total of 17 destinations could be reached by ferry.  This does not include numerous other destinations through transfers to other modes at Circular Quay, Milsons Point, McMahons Point etc. 

So you can see that from two very simple principles - regular intervals and timed connections at interchange points - a ferry network can be easy to comprehend for the passenger and provide access to multiple destinations with great convenience. 

This is the first in a six part series on regular interval timetabling: Parts 2 to 6 will follow in coming weeks.