Ferries: to work, they need a lot more than a guaranteed comfortable seat

I hate to say I told you so, and I hate even more to see enthusiasm and investment defeated, but it’s looking that way with the Wyndham to Docklands ferry.

After much anticipation from some quarters, it kicked off this week in a blaze of publicity.

Just to recap here’s the deal:

  • The ferry departs Wyndham Harbour at Werribee South, headed for Docklands in the morning, and back in the evening.
  • One morning departure at 6:40am, one evening departure at 5:40pm.
  • The ferry trip is scheduled to take 74 minutes. They’d like to speed this up if possible.
  • The ferry fare during the trial period is $13 one way, or $20 return.

The ferry might be a comfortable ride, with a guaranteed seat, but if you’re going to abandon your car for public transport, it also needs to provide a combination of convenience, speed and affordability.

One departure per day each way, going to Docklands (a fair way from most CBD jobs) is only going to suit so many people — those whose timetables exactly match the ferry times, and are guaranteed never to be running late, or needing to go home early.

They may or may not consider the train to be a competitor, but it’s hard to ignore it. The train is twice as fast (from Werribee to Southern Cross in about 35 minutes; obviously longer if coming from near the ferry terminal), the train fare is about a third the cost of the ferry, and there are departures every 10 minutes in peak, and every 20 minutes most of the rest of the day. 64 departures per weekday.

Even if — as the operators hope — the ferry is sped up by 15 minutes, taking about an hour, for many people it doesn’t resolve the issue of a single fixed departure time, though it might enable a second departure each peak (two hours later).

Circular Quay

Perhaps they’re trying to mimic Sydney’s Manly Fast Ferry — a privately run premium service (costing up to $8.80 each way). But their ferries depart up to every 10 minutes in peak, and critically, Sydney’s geography is such that both the fast ferry (19 minutes) and even the slower government ferries (30 minutes) can easily beat the same trip by car (up to an hour), bus or train at peak times.

Geography is really the key to why Sydney has so many commuter ferry routes, and also to why Melbourne doesn’t. There are few if any Melbourne trips by water that are time-competitive with land modes, AND there are no major ferry terminals immediately adjacent to business districts where large numbers of people actually work. The latter may change eventually with Docklands development, but the time issue is likely to remain.

So how did the Wyndham ferry go in the first week?

On day one they apparently had 57 passengers… though about half of these were said to be officials or staff.

By Wednesday, it was being reported there were only seven passengers on board.

They’re giving it a red hot go, and I wish them luck. In fact from next Monday, there are additional services during off-peak periods, making a total of two round trips per day (including weekends).

Maybe off-peak trips will appeal to tourists. Is there much to see at Wyndham Harbour and the vicinity? Enough to keep people occupied for five hours waiting for the ferry back?

But with still only one trip each peak, it’s hard to see how it’s going to be a success in terms of commuters.

Docklands

Like SuitJet (the premium commuter coach service) which failed last year only a week or two into their trial, they’ve provided comfort at a premium fare, but they’ve ignored affordability, speed, and the basic utility of mainstream public transport.

Melbourne’s trains might often be packed, and sometimes unreliable, but the fares are cheap, they go where a lot of people want to go, and for the most part the timetables give you the flexibility to travel more-or-less when you want.

If public transport can’t offer that, it won’t entice people out of cars.

Update 10/6/2016: Looks like the ferry is in trouble: Free travel on Wyndham Harbour-Docklands ferry on June 10 as Port Phillip Ferries struggle to fill seats

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8 thoughts on “Ferries: to work, they need a lot more than a guaranteed comfortable seat”

  1. 1
    Evan says:

    A shuttle bus service to the Werribee Park/Zoo area could help drive patronage from Melbourne on weekends, if well-marketed. It’d need to be paired with appropriately timed ferry services, of course. Unfortunately I doubt that’ll be enough to keep the operation going on its own.

  2. 2
    Kevin says:

    Daniel, what’s your view of The Punt across the Yarra under West Gate Bridge?

  3. 3
    Roger says:

    Yep, hope it can become more popular, perhaps finding a significant niche market.
    On the plus side, more and more people work at Docklands so could be growing demand (from very slow start)

  4. 4
    Ilham says:

    Daniel I’m pretty sure Manly doesn’t have a train station nearby. The closest is probably North Sydney. Interesting note the E70 bus Manly to City (Wynyard) is timetabled to take 40 mins.

    There is another private ferry operator that has had success in Sydney on the Watsons Bay to Circular Quay route.

    Like the market has a good intention. As I hear it takes a while to get from Wyndham Harbour to Werribee and in particular Werribee station. Let alone to deal with the overcrowding or unreliable train service.

  5. 5
    Arfman says:

    I personally prefer the rail over the ferry, but I’m happy to see extra modes of transport available. Especially since this one is privately funded.

    I hope they do try to make improvements over the service, and the authorities allow a higher speed limit.

    It reminds me of days back when I lived in Brisbane and commute on the CityCat.

    @Evan, I believe there is a service 439 that plies between Werribee and Wyndham Habour and on some trips, make the stop at the Zoo. However, you are right that this is not a well advertised fact.

  6. 6
    Arfman says:

    Also, the ferry commuters can catch the free tram from the Docklands to the CBD.

  7. 7
    Llib says:

    I think the goal should be to improve the modes were we already have scale. I would prefer investment in better buses rather than novelties, whats next a monorail.

  8. 8
    TranzitJim says:

    What was that business class only airline between Sydney and I think Melbourne, which failed a few years ago.

    I forget much of the details now, but it failed, because it was not frequent enough.

    I hope the ferry service gets the customer base it needs. Much of its customer base would be from those who currently commute by road.

    Ideas I have include,
    ++ Shuttle bus linking the Whyndam terminus with the local area, perhaps run up to Werribe Plaza??

    ++ There needs to be a focus on a good frequency.

    ++ What about other stops for a larger catchment?

    ++ A free week, with competitions for prizes?

    ++ As they are campaigning for, higher speeds up the Yarra. That needs to happen to help speed up the maximum permissible speed.

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