|Image sourced from Sydney Morning Herald|
The timing would not have been a coincidence.
What's more, the new design is very much a tribute to the classical boxy lines of our most iconic ferry, including the working boat style inverted windscreen, seating around the full circumference of the main deck (and upper deck in the new design). And of course the green and cream livery.
The First Fleet ferry is to Sydney what the red double decker Routemaster bus is to London. It is part of the branding of Sydney. Minister Gladys Berejiklian clearly understands this and the economic benefits it brings to New South Wales(1).
Emotions aside, there are also practical considerations.
According to the Sydney Morning Herald, six vessels will be built, with the first to go in service within two years. http://www.smh.com.au/nsw/new-sydney-ferries-set-to-sail-from-2016-20141127-11v1yz.html The comment in the Herald that they will replace the First Fleeters is surprising as the original plan was to replace the older Lady Class boats and the troublesome SuperCats.
One would hope the new design will be the standard for the inner harbour network, to avoid the inefficient hotch potch of vessel classes that currently operate and which drew sharp criticism from Brett Walker's commission of inquiry in 2007.
So if this is to be the new standard for inner harbour vessels, is the design the right one?
The detailed design has not yet been released, but we do know its maximum operating speed is faster than the First Fleeters. This is a good thing as it will cope with longer trips in open water to destinations like Rose Bay and Watsons Bay.
It is also a large boat with a passenger capacity of 400. Under Uniform Sea Law, that could mean a minimum crew requirement of four, up from the three person crews in the current First Fleet vessels.
This rings some alarm bells. Brisbane ferries have operated a small boat/ high frequency strategy with great success.
Smaller ferries have reduced crewing requirements, are cheaper to run and the engineering requirements for wharf infrastructure are less demanding.
The Brisbane experience shows that smaller ferries operating at higher frequencies attract higher patronage and make a more economically efficient network.
Issues of detail will emerge when the full plans are released. The image published in the Sydney Morning Herald shows two gangway gates, which is positive, but not the more advanced "fold down" gangways used on Brisbane Ferries where pontoons and vessel freeboards are equalised.
One of the most serious shortcomings in the current network is the inefficient passenger loading technology. Is there a plan to speed up passenger embarkation on Sydney Ferries? This has implications for the design of both vessels and wharves.
(1) Unfortunately, the Independent Pricing and Regulatory Tribunal (IPART) does not seem to have the same level of understanding and assesses the external benefit of ferries to be close to zero.