With elections coming up we are bound to get the odd political hopeful throwing out the old line that we are a harbour city so if we want to improve public transport we should be thinking about investing in more ferries. It’s an idea that sounds really good in theory but as always, it the reality is sometimes a little different. Well the other day I went along to a talk by Douglas Hudson, the CEO of Fullers, about what opportunity he/Fullers see for ferries in the future. As I’m sure you can imagine it was quite an interesting talk and helped to confirm many of my thoughts on the subject. I’m going to break this post down into a few of the key areas he covered.
Auckland Ferry Performance
People often love to point to the Sydney ferries in particular as a great example of what we should be doing. If you look at a map of the ferries you see services going all over the place with services extending all the way from Manly in the North East of the harbour through to Parramatta in the west. The ferries carry about 14.8 million passengers a year which is quite substantial but when you put it in the context that there are about 551 million PT trips a year you realise the less than 3% of all PT trips take place on ferries. With a population of about 4.7 million it means that on average there are about 3.1 trips per year per capita in the Sydney area.
Another Australian city that Douglas raised was Brisbane which runs services along the Brisbane River. Yet despite being free yet there were only about 1.2 million trips on them last year. That is less than 1% of the total PT patronage and about 0.5 trips per person per year.
So how does Auckland compare? Well we have about 5.5 million ferry trips a year yet when you compare the figures for percentage of PT trips and per capita trips, we perform better than both Sydney and Brisbane.
Further as well as performing better when looking at patronage, Douglas says we also perform much better from financial point of view. As many of you will know the Devonport and Waiheke routes are fully commercial services while the other routes in Auckland tend to have fairly high farebox recovery. The reason for this high farebox recovery is that our ferry companies also run a number of tourist services meaning many of the operating and capital costs are currently able to spread across those. They will use their boats in the morning to do a few commuter runs and then during the middle of the day those same boats will be whisking tourists to many of the destinations around the gulf. The downside of course is that there are no or limited off peak services.
While our ferries are apparently more financially efficient due to the use of the boats off peak for commercial tourist services, it does mean there aren’t any boats to provide off peak services. In addition we would ideally want more frequent peak services too. To do this it means that we would need to have a lot more boats and they don’t come cheap at $7-8 million each (he said a new boat was currently under construction in Wanganui which will be here in about a year). Further and perhaps most importantly over the long run is that there wouldn’t be the option to spread the operating costs out like what currently happens thanks to the tourist services. This means that effectively all of the operating costs would need to be paid for out of the PT budget, dramatically increasing the amount we would need to spend overall.
I have also heard it suggested that we should try using smaller, cheaper and quicker vessels instead of the larger ones we tend to use. In response to this Douglas pointed out a number of issues. We have quite a decent tidal range. As a comparison Sydney has a range of 1m while in Auckland the range is 3.5m. In addition the inner harbour tends to be more exposed and have stronger swells. All of this combined means that smaller vessels become much harder to dock in adverse conditions with the wharf so the larger vessels are needed to be able to keep reliability/speed up. As it is he said some routes have up to 30% of services cancelled a year due to weather which presents additional problems as people who are willing to give ferries a go often eventually give up due to reliability issues.
One major issue for ferries is that they tend to have a limited catchment due to half (or more) of it being water. This makes it very hard to attract lots of trips without either feeder bus services or heaps of car parking. Also due to their nature as a mode of choice and he said ferries are much more of a choice that people choice to make compared other PT modes and he cited that surveys show about 30% of ferry passengers are earning over $80k per year. In the area where I disagreed with what he said the most he then went on to talk about how he thinks many people will only catch a ferry if they can drive to it pointing out that around half of all people who use the park n ride at Devonport drive there from less than 1km away. Based on this he is suggesting that expanding park n rides at ferry terminals is needed to really increase patronage although he did admit that was all but impossible to do these days on prime waterfront land. Personally I think a vastly improved bus network – like what is being proposed – and integrated fares that include ferries will really make it much easier to use ferries.
Perhaps the most interesting comments – and ones I agreed with a lot – are that he doesn’t really see much opportunities for expansion of ferry services. As we have pointed out here in the past, all of the really useful and easy routes have already been done. Other routes mooted would generally require a lot of money to be spent and potentially a lot of wharf infrastructure e.g. a ferry wharf at St Heliers would extend about 500m out to sea for it to be deep enough. There are currently a couple of routes proposed by various people including services from Te Atatu, Takapuna and Brown’s Bay but each presents some significant challenges. He said that a rough estimate for any Takapuna is that it would need about 400 passengers each peak and would need two additional boats. To put that in perspective, the most recent screenline survey suggests only Devonport and Waiheke services have higher peak patronage.
As such Douglas said he thinks the real opportunity is to improve the existing routes through higher frequencies but to do that it would obviously require buying and running more boats but also require making it easier for passengers to get to the ferry terminals.
This also seems to be the position of the Ministry of Transport, well at least on the potential to expand ferry services. The extract below is from an OIA request I got back recently and the document was providing background information to Gerry Brownlee.