Bay ferry proposals – politically appealing, but not very useful to people

While the East-West tunnel has got a lot of attention, another questionable transport project is lurking in the background.

Every so often someone will take a look at cities with ferries and conclude that Melbourne needs them too, despite the radically different geography to somewhere like, for instance, Sydney or Brisbane.

And they forget that for transport options to be useful, they need to provide not only speed and comfort, but also frequency. Frequency is critical.

Brisbane Citycat ferry

The current proposals getting airplay are from Werribee South (Wyndham Harbour) to either the city or Docklands, with some detail in these recent articles.

The problem with both is that they purport to appeal to commuters, but neither stacks up with existing public transport from the area.

  Ferry proposal 1 Ferry proposal 2 Current train
From Wyndham Harbour Wyndham Harbour Werribee station
To Docklands Station Pier Southern Cross/Flinders St
Also stops (peak) Point Cook, Williamstown None All stations to Laverton, then Newport, Footscray, North Melbourne
Travel time (peak) “under an hour” 40 minutes 35 minutes
Full trip to city Travel to wharf plus above; about an hour? Travel to wharf plus 40 minutes plus 15+ minutes on tram = about an hour? Travel to station plus 35 minutes = about 50 minutes?
Frequency of service Unknown, perhaps once an hour if using two boats? Two boats; every 40 minutes Every 10-12 minutes
Fare (return) Unknown $22
Plus $7 tram fare = $29
Capacity of vehicles “hundreds” 226 800-1000, easily

Some might think: Ah! All public transport is good public transport, right?

Wrong. The cost and benefits need to be weighed up, just as with any project.


The key points, as far as I can see from available information:

The travel time is broadly comparable, presuming provided the bay isn’t too choppy (but hey, trains have delays too).

Wharf: How do you get to Wyndham Harbour? Some might be lucky enough to walk, but for many they’d have to get in the car to reach it. Is car parking included? It’s not clear. (Werribee station has 582 spaces, and numerous connecting bus services, though these really need to be improved.)

The cost (of the proposal that’s revealed it) if you include the requisite tram/bus fare to get anywhere useful at the city end, is almost three times that of the train (plus bus and tram) fare.

But what really kills it for commuters is the frequency. Every 40-60 minutes is not at all useful to people, particularly if coming from a connecting service.

When leaving home in the morning you might be able to time the trip, but it wouldn’t work in the evening. Can you imagine the stress of trying to time your tram trip out of the CBD to catch the ferry, knowing a 40 minute wait to the next one if you miss it?

This would be an utter failure for commuters.


It might possibly work for tourists, who are less fussy about departure times and waiting around, but it’d need a lot of promotion to get people down to Docklands or Station Pier — apart from cruise ship arrivals at the pier, there wouldn’t normally be many tourists down there.

And it’d need a bus connection to Werribee Park Zoo, as I’m assuming Wyndham Harbour itself isn’t much of a tourist attraction.

The cost?

The real concern with these ferry proposals, if they get up, is the cost to get them running. The second one is said to be without government subsidy (which probably explains the $22 fare), but it’s not clear if the first one might go ahead with some sort of subsidy. The cost of ferries, even a small fleet, could be huge.

For both proposals, how much government money will go into Wyndham Harbour and other wharves to make them suitable for public ferries?

In total, how much money is likely to be spent, and will it provide a service people will actually use? What is the cost per person likely to be? With infrequent departures, I can’t see many people using it for work travel.

If millions gets spent upgrading wharf facilities, how many trains and buses (which could move another 800-1000 people) would that money have paid for?

The alternative

If we are serious about mass movement of people from the Werribee South and Point Cook areas into the city, without them being in their cars, shouldn’t we be giving them less flashy but more useful fast, frequent public transport?

How about buses every few minutes to the station, along dedicated bus lanes (with traffic light priority) so they don’t get caught in traffic (which will build as the population grows), timed to properly meet the trains.

And the trains of course should run more frequently (when RRL opens, capacity will be freed up for this) so the wait is never long and the journey’s not over-crowded.

It’s really not that hard, but it does mean government should avoid getting distracted by expensive but flashy gimmicks we don’t need, such as cross-bay ferries.

Update 12/4/2014

An Age article today has some more detail:

Initially a single ferry, capacity 350 (a bit less than half a moderate train load), from Werribee South to Docklands, taking 45 minutes (if they can get the river speed limit lifted) or 65 minutes (if not).

Two departures each peak, presumably at least 90 to 130 minutes apart, depending on speed. To start next summer, and cost will be $25 return (so about 3.5 times the train fare when Melbourne two-zone fares are abolished from January).

No mention of car parking or bus connections at the Werribee South end. And although it mentions the recent Wyndham to the City race, it doesn’t point out that the speedboat actually took marginally longer than most of the other participants from Point Cook: 1 hour and 13 minutes.

Update 16/6/2014

The Age: Ferries to Melbourne’s west ‘not a priority, not viable’ — PTV advised the Coalition government that: a long-running concept to get ferries servicing a Werribee South-to-Docklands route was not advisable.

This was because a five knot speed limit on the Yarra River made the final leg of the journey too slow.

And a ferry service from Melbourne’s west would suffer from “large swells”, “cancellations and uncomfortably rough trips on a regular basis”, the advice said.

Update 28/10/2015

They’re having another go at a Portarlington/Wyndham to Docklands ferry.

Initially it would be Wyndham to Docklands. They’ve asked for the Yarra river 8 knot limit to be raised, and would aim for a 40-45 minutes travel time. Fare discounted at first, but eventually “less than $30 return”. They seem to see the competition as road, not rail (which costs $7.52 return). They say 2 departures per day initially (eg in the peak direction).

Again, it’s very hard to see how this would catch on.

Update 29/4/2016

Plans are pushing ahead to trial a Wyndham to City ferry, with services beginning in May (probably the 16th).

They haven’t overcome the issues I’ve raised above: it’ll be two trips per peak hour, taking about 70 minutes, costing at least $30 return.

The best local comparison I can think of is “SuitJet”, a similarly-priced luxury commuter bus service launched in 2014, it was also hoping that a guaranteed seat and a comfortable ride would make up for it being less frequent, slower, and more expensive than trains. It failed within weeks of starting, and hasn’t returned.

One can only wish them well, but I suspect this ferry will be a SuitJet of the sea.

Ferries and underground railways!! … But why?

Yet again we have public figures extolling the virtues of technology over service in public transport.

Underground railways

Jeff Kennett thinks underground railways are the panacea:

“If I was able to wave a magic wand even now, I would start the planning for an underground rail system,” he told the Australian Property Institute Pan Pacific Congress in Melbourne on Tuesday.

“It would cost hundreds of millions of dollars, but I can assure you when you look back in 50 years, or 100 years, whatever you pay today would seem cheap.

“We can hardly accommodate the traffic on the surface of our community in an efficient way and it is only going to get worse.”

AAP: Underground rail would be magic: Kennett

It’s great that the bloke behind Citylink (the inner-urban motorway that was meant to fix Melbourne’s traffic — but didn’t) now understands that to move people more efficiently around big cities, you can’t do it with cars.

But without knowing exactly what else he said, he seems to not have realised that the (mostly European) cities that have underground railways have them because the city developed before the railways came.

In Australia it’s the opposite — the railways were built as the cities developed, so naturally the railways are at ground level because that’s the cheapest option.

The proposed Melbourne Metro tunnel is only a tunnel because now the inner-city is built-up, and if you’re going to do expansion of track capacity and serve the hospital precinct and St Kilda Road with heavy rail, it’s got to be underground.

The benefits of European rapid transit/metro systems aren’t because they’re underground (many aren’t outside city centres). The benefits are from having high-capacity, high-frequency services meaning large numbers of people can move quickly with minimal waiting, at any time of day, providing the sort of freedom of mobility the motor car can offer (better, in fact, given traffic levels in most cities).

This can be done with Australian suburban railways, by simply running more frequent trains all day every day, along with level crossing removal, and better connecting feeder buses to make more trips viable without a car.


Proposed Melbourne ferry mapMeanwhile, Melbourne Lord Mayoral candidate Robert Doyle is pushing ferries:

At the launch of “Team Doyle” this morning on the banks of the Yarra River, lord mayoral candidate Mr Doyle said the ferry trial would cost about $500,000, would run five times a day and take about thirty minutes to sail between three stops.

Mr Doyle said existing water taxis and ferry services mainly operated on weekends and the new service would help workers who want to travel around Docklands.

The Age: Doyle pledges free Docklands ferry

Five times a day? You’re kidding me.

Aimed at workers? What Docklands workers are going to wait 1-2 hours for a ferry, which will take 30 minutes to cover a distance they could walk in 17 minutes?

Tourists would probably like it, but for workers/commuters, how does this solve anything, except perhaps for a struggling ferry operator who would appreciate $500,000 a year in revenue?

Sorry Robert, but unless vital information is missing, this idea makes no sense at all.

It’s not about infrastructure

When will our leaders figure out that better public transport is not about digging tunnels or exploring new modes such as ferries? It’s about dependable, well-connected, capacious, safe, fast, frequent services.

If a ferry or an underground railway or a maglev or a monorail is being proposed, the first question should be: does it cost-effectively deliver on the basic requirements of good public transport and improve mobility? And is it better/cheaper/quicker than upgrading what we already have now?