Ferry Logo

Ferry Logo

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.

Tuesday, 11 April 2017

Getting Ferry Passenger Exchange Right

I have long lamented how slowly Sydney ferries load and unload passengers. This delays services, causes connections to be missed and it's a cost burden for both the operator and taxpayers. The problem will be felt more accutely by passengers on the new Darling Harbour to Watsons Bay route, which starts in October. A long dwell at Circular Quay will prove very annoying for those wishing to travel the full distance from Barangaroo to Watsons Bay and return.
Source: Sydney Ferries Annual Report 2011-12. Note distance between pontoon and vessel decks
The problem stems from a variety of causes:

  • variation between freeboard (distance from the water line to the deck) across vessel classes. Wharf pontoons are set at a compromise height, which is somewhere between the high freeboard of a SuperCat and the low freeboard of a First Fleeter. This means manually deployed gangplanks must be used to bridge the gap; 
  • water can by messy at some wharves (the vessel itself can drag in wash), so a gangplank is necessary for safety in any case;
  • the internal layout of Sydney's ferries can restrict pedestrian flows and delay embarkation;
  • Egress from ramps at Circular Quay (especially wharves 2, 4 and 5) is restricted by cafes and crib rooms. On busy days, passengers trying to exit the ramps are confronted by a wall of passengers queuing to board. This also happens at King Street Darling Harbour and Pyrmont Bay, simply because the pontoons are too small with no physical separation of boarding and disembarking passengers.
There is no simple solution and improvements already under way should help. The internal layout of the new Heritage Class vessels is more open and passengers should load more quickly through the two doorways on each side of the main deck. The pontoons for the new Barangaroo terminal are much bigger than at the current King Street wharf.

But can more be done? Some overseas practices suggest we can do better.

Take the example of the Vancouver SeaBus. It takes 12 minutes for the double ended, 400 capacity ferry to make the crossing from downtown Vancouver to the north shore. There's a turnaround of two minutes at one terminal and four minutes at the other. 

How is it possible for 400 passengers to unload and another 400 to load in less than two minutes?

The Vancouver SeaBus was introduced in 1977. The service covers a distance of 3.2 km and is operated by a double ended catamaran with an operating speed of 13 knots - about the same as a Sydney First Fleet ferry. With this relatively modest speed over water, wash is minimised and fuel efficiency is much better than a faster boat. 

Where speed is achieved is in the turnaround component of the cycle time. Careful attention was obviously given to planning the passenger exchange process. The vessels have six double doors on either side and the two terminals are designed to load passengers on one side while passengers disembark on the other side.

Image from Vuchic (2007), "Urban Transit Systems and Technology"

It would be naive to think the same system would work in Sydney, with diverse maritime conditions and vessel requirements. And terminals like those used by the Vancouver SeaBus take up more space per berth than the current Circular Quay configuration. Even when the Quay is redeveloped, it's unlikely to be acceptable to have a terminal with fewer berths than the current design. 

This should not dissuade us from trying to improve passenger exchange on Sydney's ferries. The Manly Fast Ferries have already shown initiative by using four gangways on its services. Perhaps too there could be a rearrangement of berths at Circular Quay so vessels with the same freeboard used the same pontoon, so pontoon deck heights could be better aligned with vessels. 

These and other improvements need to be considered as part of the redevelopment of Circular Quay and future fleet acquisitions. But for this to happen, passenger exchange must be viewed as a strategic priority in Sydney's ferry planning process.     


Tuesday, 28 March 2017

Is merging the Darling Harbour and Watsons Bay lines a good idea?

Regular users of the Darling Harbour ferry will welcome the route changes announced today by Transport Minister Andrew Constance. The change will see a merging of the existing Watsons Bay and Rose Bay services into the F4 Darling Harbour line and operated by the new nippy (26 knot) Heritage Class ferries.

You will be able to take a ferry to Rose Bay or Watsons Bay from Pyrmont Bay, Barangaroo, Balmain East, McMahons Point or Milsons Point without transferring at Circular Quay. Even better, you will actually be able to ride the ferry from Pyrmont Bay to Barangaroo. It is currently an annoying loop, which allows passengers to go from King Street wharf to Pyrmont Bay, but not back again.

But closer scrutiny suggests the change has some downsides too.

If the hard to manoeuvre new Heritage Class boats can handle the reversing from Pyrmont Bay quickly (there’s no guarantee her issues in dealing with high winds have been or will ever be solved), then making it possible for passengers to return to Barangaroo from Pyrmont Bay will be a big improvement.

I love through lines, and the merger of Watsons Bay services with Darling Harbour is a through line, but will this particular marriage be a happy one? I’m not so sure.

What is not revealed in the media release is that there will not actually be peak services to Watsons Bay. Commuters from Watsons Bay will continue to be serviced by a non regulated Captain Cook ferry direct to Circular Quay. In peak periods, the line will terminate in the east at Rose Bay in the peaks as they do now and operate every 20 minutes. This means the Darling Harbour section of the route also needs to offer 20 minute headways, even though morning peak capacity is currently 25% at best with 30 minute headways. Does Darling Harbour really need a ferry every 20 minutes in the AM peak? Probably not. Although the DH PM peaks are swelled by tourists in summer, even then I don’t recall a Darling Harbour boat reaching capacity during a week-day PM peak.

There are better candidates for through lines in Sydney. One of them is Darling Harbour and Taronga Zoo as both have similar tourist profiles and could be joined into a single through line on a 90 minute cycle with 30 minute headways, increasing to 15 minutes for high demand tourist periods. There would also be an option to extend the cycle to 120 minutes by adding an extension from Barangaroo to White Bay. But then that would mean retaining the SuperCats as there won’t be enough Heritage Class ferries to operate both the Zoo-Darling Harbour service and the Rose Bay/ Watson Bay service. I am in the camp that believes Sydney should retain the SuperCats.

What Rose Bay ferry commuters may not realise is that the journey to their new office in Barangaroo each morning will be a long one with a lot of intermediate stops. It’s about 11 minutes from Rose Bay to Circular Quay on a fast ferry. This will be followed by a 3 or 4 minute wait to unload passengers then a further 21 minutes with three stops before arriving at Barangaroo. That’s a total journey of 35 or 36 minutes. And a lot of people in the Rose Bay area think they live in the 30 minute city! It may actually be quicker to alight at Circular Quay, take the train to Wynyard and wander down to your Barangaroo office through the Wynyard Walk.

And the long standing complaint about lack of Sydney Ferry peak services to Watsons Bay - which is that on week-days, even Friday nights, the last Sydney Ferry departs Watsons Bay at 4.45 pm – will presumably not be addressed by these changes.

These may seem like trifling objections, but there is a bigger issue. Yes, through lines are a good idea, but in isolation they can be just a kludge. Wouldn’t it make more sense to reconfigure the entire ferry network into a pulse timetable, with all services which meet at Circular Quay having convenient transfer times? We would then have something very close to a city with a go from anywhere/ go to anywhere ferry network. Just like public transport in other grown up cities. 

Friday, 25 November 2016

First thoughts on Sydney's new ferry

Catherine Hamlin berthed in front of the Manly ferry Collaroy at Mort Bay Balmain

The first of six new inner harbour ferries, the Catherine Hamlin, was delivered to the Sydney Ferries shipyard in Balmain last Monday. But is it really an inner harbour ferry?

I haven't been on board yet to have a good look round and operational trials are a long way off completion, so this post is by no means a review. It's more a list of questions. 

The new boat's appearance certainly owes a lot to the Alan Payne designed First Fleet Class which was introduced to the Sydney Ferry fleet from late 1984. It is refreshing to see a new ferry that looks like it was designed 40 or 50 years ago. Alan Payne liked traditional lines, so the First Fleeters did not exactly look modern even in 1984, even though they were catamarans with many technological innovations. 

While it may look like a First Fleeter, there are plenty of differences, which is why this post starts by asking if the Catherine Hamlin truly is an inner harbour ferry. Sydney's ferries operate in a wide range of sea states, with differing 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.
  • 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.
This doesn't do justice to all the requirements, but suffice to say that planning a fleet acquisition program for Sydney Ferries is complex, and more so when having to take into account the vessels retained from the legacy fleet.

Some aspects of the Catherine Hamlin design are striking. Its freeboard (the distance between the main deck and the water line) looks to be about the same as the Supercats, which is nearly 50 cms higher than the First Fleeters. It also has a raised foredeck and high bow. And it can operate at 27 knots, which is a little faster than the SuperCats. At 35 metres in length, it is hard to imagine it will be as manouevrable as a First Fleeter when berthing at one of those tricky inner harbour wharves. 

The high freeboard means that if the Catherine Hamlin visits inner harbour wharves normally serviced by First Fleeters, the steep incline of gangplanks will be difficult to navigate by passengers with disabilities or strollers. 

So will the six new ferries actually be used mainly for Watsons Bay, Rose Bay and as back up for the Manly ferry? Are the four SuperCats, the youngest vessels in the fleet before the Catherine Hamlin's arrival, scheduled for early retirement? 

Passengers will enjoy the freedom of movement inside and outside the new vessel, especially being able to walk right around the upper deck outside. Small children will have a field day. Having two gangway gates on each side of the vessel and two sets of doorways for entry to the main deck are another big benefit. Providing the gangway gates properly align with bollards and fenders on wharves, then there is the potential for much faster passenger loading.  

There is one negative observation to be made. When Alan Payne designed the First Fleet Class vessels, he made a special effort to ensure all seats on the main and upper decks had a wide field of view outside. Sydney Harbour is beautiful and passengers expect to be able to view it unimpeded. The raised foredeck on the Catherine Hamlin, with extensive outside seating and stairs to the upper deck, will block the forward view for passengers sitting inside on the main deck. This is certainly disappointing.

Operational trials will commence soon in Sydney Harbour, but the Catherine Hamlin will not be in service for a little while yet - perhaps sometime in January. We will know by then more about its operational performance, such as the wash it pulls at high speed (quite a bit, based on early reports), its manoeuvrability and fuel consumption. Perhaps we will also learn how the fleet acquisition strategy dovetails with network design plans and the wharf infrastrucuture improvement program. 

Monday, 3 October 2016

Why Wynyard Walk will change Sydney for the better

Source: Sydney Morning Herald
Wynyard Walk, a pedestrian tunnel connecting Sydney's Wynyard Station with the new commercial area at Barangaroo South, opened two weeks ago without much fanfare. 

Social media indicated more excitement among the general public:

OMFG no words to describe the shear life-changing fabulousness that is the Wynyard tunnel

For those who don't know it, the tunnel starts at Wynyard underground station in the heart of Sydney and exits 180 metres west, above ground, at Napoleon Plaza near the corner of Margaret and Kent Streets.  From here a footbridge over Sussex Street leads pedestrians to escalators and stairs which deposit them at Barangaroo South and the Darling Harbour waterfront. At brisk walking speed, it's only four minutes from water's edge to the Opal Card readers at Wynyard. Another 90 seconds and you're at George Street.

No intersection is negotiated between Barangaroo and George Street.
Source: www.barangaroo.com.au

To appreciate the benefits fully, you would need to try what many pedestrians have previously endured to reach Wynyard from the Darling Harbour wharf - a walk up the steeply inclined Erskine Street, crossing six road intersections, five of which are controlled by traffic lights. Like most traffic lights in Sydney, they seem to be optimised for cars, not pedestrians.

In the context of other Sydney infrastructure projects - the new Barangaroo ferry terminal, due to open in March 2017, and the conversion of George Street to light rail and pedestrian traffic only from 2019 - Wynyard Walk will make a huge beneficial change for ferry users. It creates effortless access to the centre of Sydney from its western edge.

Erskine Street ferry wharf was once the city terminus for the Watsons Bay tramline. Ferries from Anandale/ Glebe, White Bay, Thames Street Balmain and Parramatta River all terminated at Erskine Street. The Erskine Street tram provided a convenient means for commuters to reach their final destination elsewhere in the city. But tram services to Erskine Street stopped in 1950. Ferries from Parramatta and Circular Quay (Darling Harbour line) still stop at Erskine Street, but the Anandale/Glebe and White Bay ferries are sadly no more and ferries from Thames Street Balmain now travel directly to Circular Quay. 

But Wynyard Walk is now the great successor to the old tramway. The western side of the CBD has become an easy and logical point of entry to the city for ferries arriving from the west, even without the old tram. With the increased berthing capacity available at the new Barangaroo terminal, it is an opportunity to resume ferry services from Glebe and redirect the Woolwich/ Thames Street route to terminate at Barangaroo. And why bother sending the Parramatta ferry around Dawes Point to Circular Quay when the centre of the city, plus train and light rail connections, can be so easily accessed from Barangaroo?

Circular Quay reached capacity as a ferry terminal more than one hundred years ago. Norman Selfe, the great and far sighted engineering innovator of nineteenth century Sydney foresaw even then that all ferries travelling from the west should terminate west of Dawes Point. In his vision, the western terminal was immediately west of the harbour bridge. But if he was alive today, and saw how the city has now re-arranged itself, Barangaroo South would be the great ferry terminal he envisaged. 

Selfe would be pleased at what has been accomplished with the construction of Wynyard Walk. It will help make Sydney a significantly better place.

Thursday, 4 August 2016

New services from Rose Bay and Mosman to Barangaroo: good idea or a waste of money?

The American transport planner Jarrett Walker often talks about making public transport more useful. By this he means the network should be designed so people can conveniently travel to where they need to go, at a time that suits them. And good network design can also lead to efficient use of resources – high rates of fleet and crew utilisation and more passengers per service hour.

Popular demand for more public transport does not pay much attention to usefulness or efficiency. A new train station? Yes please. A new ferry service? I’ll have two of those.  

Building infrastructure is tangible and highly visible. More commuter services for existing customers are also obvious. But what about those who do not use public transport because it doesn’t take them where they need to go?  They’re the silent, invisible majority. 

A more nuanced view of public transport takes a network wide view. What can be done to make better connections between points of origin and destination? At hubs in the network, is it convenient to transfer from one line to another? Is it easy to change from one mode to another? Is there inefficient duplication in the network, such as two modes providing services on the same corridor?

New commuter ferry services planned from Rose Bay and Mosman to Barangaroo fall into the populist category.  If you haven’t heard about them, they get a brief mention in Transport for NSW’s web page on the new Barangaroo ferry terminal. Many Mosman and Rose Bay residents will be excited at the prospect of having their existing ferry services to Circular Quay supplemented with extra ferries travelling directly to Barangaroo.

Who wouldn’t?

But how many will catch the new services? The current run from Rose Bay to Circular Quay takes about 11 minutes in a SuperCat and covers a distance of 5.7 km. The new service to Barangaroo is longer – 7.8 km – because vessels will need to traverse around Dawes Point before heading south to  Barangaroo. I’m guessing the trip will take at least five more minutes than the Circular Quay run. If you work in one of the towers at Barangaroo South you may think that is just fine, but for most people working west of George Street, it will be quicker to change at Circular Quay for the train to Wynyard or Town Hall, or transfer to the Light Rail when it starts in 2019. 

And what about the impact on efficiency? With fast passenger loading and unloading, one SuperCat with a maximum speed of 26 knots can operate the Rose Bay – Circular Quay run at 30 minute headways on a 30 minute cycle.  The new run to Barangaroo will probably be on a 45 minute cycle and perhaps an ugly 45 minute headway. That means the cost per service will be 50% more than the Circular Quay run. 

It’s a similar story for the new Mosman to Barangaroo services.

If the objective is to make our ferry services more efficient and useful, there are other things that need to be done. Here are four suggestions:
  • Redesign the existing Sydney Ferry network based on integrated regular-interval timetable principles. This would create timed transfers for lines terminating at Circular Quay and Barangaroo.
  • Extend the current Darling Harbour line into a pendulum line, with Taronga Zoo as one terminus and the White Bay Power Station redevelopment as the other.
  • Make faster passenger loading a strategic priority in the design of all future wharves and vessels.
  • All off peak River and Woolwich ferries to terminate at Barangaroo.  Woolwich ferries to terminate at Barangaroo all day, but passengers can transfer at Balmain East to a Circular Quay ferry with a four minute transfer wait in both directions.

On my calculations, the network changes can be achieved with no extra peak vessel requirements and just 10.7% more service hours than the current timetable. Convenient origin-destination pair connections would increase from 96 to 419. Sydney would have a very usable ferry network, with less subsidisation from taxpayers.

Wednesday, 6 July 2016

New Ferries and the Eastern Suburbs

When it was announced in November 2014 that Sydney was getting six new Inner Harbour ferries, expectations were raised that they would be "some of the fastest on Sydney Harbour", operating on Inner Harbour routes from Watsons Bay to Cockatoo Island.

Unfortunately, fast ferries don't always work well in urban transit systems. 

As observed astutely by Kamen and Barry (2006): 

"Wheels on steel rails or smooth concrete ... produce negligible resistance compared to the frictional and wavemaking effects of a hull in water. And land vehicles enjoy essentially 100% propulsive efficiency between driveline and useful thrust.  Public land vehicles also benefit from an economy of scale: A single operator can drive a train that moves well over a thousand commuters, or a bendy bus or multi-car streetcar holding a hundred or more passengers."

Frictional resistance of a vessel hull in water is significant. As Kamen and Barry noted, "propulsion power is roughly proportional to speed cubed, and most costs are therefore also proportionate to speed cubed or at least squared." 

This is why Sydney Ferries' SuperCats, operating at speeds of up to 26 knots to Rose Bay and Watsons Bay, need to be refuelled daily. The more sedate First Fleeters, with a maximum speed of 12 knots, only refuel once a week.

Fuel and maintenance costs are not the only issues. Australian Maritime Safety Authority (AMSA) standards are more demanding for a ferry operator when a vessel's propulsion power exceeds 750 kW.  Vessels in this category must be driven by a Marine Engineer Driver (MED) Grade 1. Most Sydney Ferry masters are not qualified at this level. 

For this reason, I'm guessing that the new Inner Harbour ferries, due to enter service later in 2016, will have a propulsion power of 749 kW. They will then only require an MED 2 at the controls, but reach a modest speed of 20 knots at full throttle. That will be about the limit, given the superstructure and passenger capacity proposed for the new vessels.

There's nothing wrong with 20 knots for most of the Inner Harbour. The geography of Sydney means a slow ferry to Cremorne Point, Kurraba Point or Balmain East competes quite effectively with land transport.

The real problem lies with Watsons Bay and Rose Bay. Even with improvements in passenger loading, the new vessels will not be able to keep the current Eastern Suburbs timetable if their maximum speed is 20 knots. 

Why not change the timetable then?

Timetables are constrained by mathematics as much as propulsion systems. It takes about 11 minutes for a SuperCat travelling at up to 26 knots in open water to make the 6.2 km journey from Rose Bay to Circular Quay. After adding time for passenger loading and unloading, the round trip can be completed in 30 minutes. That's tight, but one SuperCat can operate a 30 minute interval service to Rose Bay. With two SuperCats, it could be a 15 minute interval.

If the current Watsons Bay wharf was upgraded to a better design, a round trip to WB, with a stop at Rose Bay in both directions, could be completed in 60 minutes with a speed of 26 knots in open water. This would require two vessels with a 30 minute interval.

This neat scenario falls apart if a slower, 20 knot vessel was to replace the SuperCats. The 11 minutes from Rose Bay to Circular Quay goes up to 13 minutes. Rose Bay round trip goes from 30 to 34 minutes; Watsons Bay round trip goes from 60 to 68 minutes. Result misery. 

The 20 knot vessel option does not work for the Eastern Suburbs because, with clockface 30 minute headways, the slower speed will lead to long layovers at either end and an extra vessel added to the runnings: a very wasteful outcome all round.

So what's to be done about the Eastern Suburbs? My guess is that the SuperCats will continue operating on Eastern Suburbs runs for some time - and the new Inner Harbour ferries will probably not venture to either Rose Bay or Watsons Bay. 

What this means for Sydney's ferry fleet strategy is unclear. The First Fleet Ferries have plenty of life left in them. With nine First Fleeters and six new Inner Harbour boats to come into service over the next 18 months, there is capacity to expand the Inner Harbour network. This comes at a cost, of course. With the new Inner Harbour ferries, plus the recently announced four new Parramatta River ferries, the complexity of Sydney's diverse ferry fleet could be greater than ever.     

Ferry passengers of Sydney must wait with baited breath to see what transpires.


Kamen, P. & Barry, C. (2006). Urban Passenger-Only Ferry Systems: Issues, Opportunities and Technologies. In R. Delpizzo (Ed.), Sustainability in the Maritime Industry: A Collection of Relevant Papers. New York: Society of Naval Architects and Marine Engineers.