On a post about Auckland’s planned rapid transit network a while ago, one reader asked the question of why we don’t plan more ferry services:
We have a nice big harbour with good access from the North Shore and East Auckland. The base infrastructure is already there yet we rarely talk about ferry services and utilising the harbour as a source of transport. When we talk about low hanging fruit I’d have thought ferry services would be near the top of that list.
This is indeed an good question, it seems obvious that a city build around harbours with so many harbour side suburbs should have more ferries. After all they are fast point to point, don’t suffer from congestion, and who doesn’t like going on a boat ride?
Unfortunately, the economics of ferries aren’t favorable to running them everywhere.
The reason we don’t pick more low hanging ferry fruit, is because we already have already picked the low hanging ferry fruit. The routes that would work well already operate as ferries, while the routes that don’t, won’t. There may be some opportunity to double down on the ones that perform well, but adding new ferry routes is usually very expensive for little real gain.
The problem? Ferries suffer a triple whammy of :
- being expensive to buy boats and build wharves.
- being expensive to run day to day, and very expensive to run frequently all day.
- having intrinsically bad coverage and catchment.
Ferry boats cost several million dollars, and even the most basic wharf can cost a few million. Then the boats use a lot of fuel with big engines, and often require several staff in addition to the pilot. So to get a new ferry service going you need to invest millions up front in wharves and fleet, and commit to hundreds of dollars an hour in running costs. And that is just to get a basic start with one or two sailings a day. If you want decent frequency then your operating costs grow hugely. To do a single sailing inbound in the morning requires a whole boat and crew, just for one run. If you wanted to do four sailings over the peak to give a decent half hourly frequency, you’d need up to four boats, with four crews on the payroll, depending on the the turnaround time.
Then you’re not likely to get that many customers, despite the high costs to run the service. Consider the catchment, which is the potential market a new ferry might serve. A simple bus route might stop fifteen or twenty times in the middle of dense suburban and urban areas. However a ferry line has one, maybe two stops. To make matters worse these are almost always out on long wharf or promontory with half the catchment in the water. One stop with half the catchment of a simple bus stop! It’s a bit like building a whole railway line just for one train station at the end.
But it’s not all bad news, there are a few that work very well: Devonport, Waiheke, Pine Harbour, Half Moon Bay. But these are places where there is little or no alternative and they do rely on two-way travel, elaborate bus connections and park and ride to furnish customers. For the rest of the ferry routes in Auckland the patronage is almost insignificant, similar to our worst bus routes, and the subsidy per trip must be well into the double figures.
So what can be done? Well if we look at that list of all the difficulties ferries have, we can turn it around into opportunities for improvement.
Smaller, cheaper and more fuel efficient boats might be a good place to start, particularly ones that can be operated by just one person like a bus is. Some of the newer ferry lines in Auckland run small boats with small crews and I imagine they are much more efficient as a result. There is a little bit of a catch here. For safety reasons maritime law limits any ferry with only one crew to just 49 passengers, less than a bus. With two crew on board you can have up to 99 passengers, about the same as a double decker. So there might be a sweet spot with small efficient boats with two crew and up to 99 passengers.
With smaller more nimble boats we might get away with smaller wharves that don’t need to go as far out into deep water. Shorter floating pontoon jetties might do the trick, although one does wonder how they’ll hold up in rough weather. This might be a case where things are cheaper to build and run… but the line ends up being cancelled a couple of times a month when the weather is stormy. If you regularly have to supply replacement buses to relieve cancelled ferries you might as well just run the buses!
So small, efficient boats on compact wharves might help the cost side of things, but what about the patronage side? How do you get more paying customers? For that I think you need two things. Firstly you need better service frequencies. Nobody is ever comfortable relying on just one sailing a day, miss that and you’re screwed. Likewise if the timetable doesn’t give you the flexibility to stay late at work or hang around longer to go to the gym, or meet a friend for a drink or whatever it is people do with themselves, then you’re unlikely to rely on it day to day. Secondly you need to serve more potential trips. Part of that is in the temporal dimension, using those better service frequencies to serve students, shoppers and sight seers as well as commuters. But part of it is in the spatial dimension, having ferries that link more places. That suggests ferry lines that serve a series of stops rather than just going point to point, making them more like a train line with several stations along the way.
With that I idea in mind I had a little play around with the idea of stringing the upper harbour ferries into one route with four stops, rather than two routes with two stops each. So instead of one ferry line serving Hobsonville and Beach Haven, and a second one that serves Northcote Point and Birkenhead, which if we just had one line that does Hobsonville – Beach Haven – Birkenhead – Northcote Point – Downtown? Given the Hobsonville boats run out past Birkenhead anyway, do we need them doubling up on the inner harbour?
I worked out if you were to take those Hobsonville boats and crews and and throw them in as an extension of the Birkenhead runs, you would be able to get in an extra two return trips a day… with the same hours and service-kms. For Hobsonville and Beach Haven that is a 40% increase in service delivery each day, an extra run each way in the morning and another in the evening. Pretty sweet, but what is the cost? Well there is no financial cost, the only real cost is an extra 5-6 minutes to stop at Birkenhead and Northcote Point, taking the run time from 35 minutes up to 41 from Hobsonville and Beach Haven. There would be no change in the time or the route for people at Birkenhead or Northcote wharves, they would still get dropped off first and picked up last as they do now and they would still have all the other sailings across the day. Having said that, they would get a new benefit from the ability to catch their ferry the other way up to Hobsonville. That could start to be a significant benefit once the proposed dining and entertainment precinct is developed around the wharf
So a very interesting trade off that; would the people of Hobsonville and Beach Haven be willing to sacrifice 6 minutes on the run time of all their ferry trips to add an extra sailing inbound in the morning and another outbound in the evening?