Harbouring doubts - are ferries for Melbourne viable?

Martin MankowskiAugust 12, 2013

Recently Urban.com.au published an article discussing the new development at Wyndham Harbour. I must admit it looks spectacular. Talking some cues from Williamstown and some from Perth's Hillary's Harbour, it makes great use of one of the West's most underused assets: its coastline. However one thing does bother me about it's the land public transport forgot. There has been a proposal put forward to address this: a ferry service from Wyndham Harbour to the CBD. Sounds great in theory, but is it viable?

Ferries has been part of the Sydney transport landscape as a commercial service since 1861. With services to over 40 destinations to locations on both sides of the Harbour and even up the river to Parramatta, Sydney Ferries carry about 14 million passengers a year, six million of them to Manly alone. And while catching a ferry and taking a ridiculous amount of photos of the Harbour Bridge as you do the ubiquitous Titanic pose on the front of the boat is a right of passage for any tourist, commuters actually make up a significant proportion of those numbers, thanks mainly to a train/ticketing system that is as confusing as it is frustrating.

Now, the Sydney/Melbourne rivalry is the stuff of Legend. So much so, that it resulted in the rather soulless city of Canberra being built to settle an argument on where the nation's capital should be built. So you'd think Melbourne would be falling over itself to emulate its great rival in this department, especially given its geographic location on one of the largest natural harbours in the world, Port Phillip Bay. Yet, last year, the total number of commercial commuter ferry passengers (i.e. not a Midday cruise from Williamstown to St Kilda by the grey army) in Melbourne was (drum roll)...


Zip. Zilch. Nada. You get the picture. So why is this? Historically, Melbourne has had a pig headed obsession with cars, one that is starting to wane with the ever increasing congestion of the last decade. More recently, it's probably a testament to our fairly efficient public transport system, although it is starting to show signs of strain as it reaches capacity, patiently awaiting the arrival of its savior, the Melbourne Metro. So given these factors, and the arrival of the outer suburbs on the west side of the bay for the first time, the tide may finally be turning.

As mentioned above, a proposed ferry service from Wyndham Harbour to Station Pier was recently mooted by ferry operator Riverside Marine. With an estimated return fare of $22 and no government subsidy, questions remain whether it will be viable, or even get off the ground for that matter. That would be a tragedy for the fledgling development; given its relative isolation and traffic chaos of its nearest neighbour Point Cook, the failure of the proposed ferry would confine it to yet another car dependent suburban fringe failure.

I was actually in Sydney recently, running in the City 2 Surf. After a mandatory visit to Manly's 4 Pines brewery, I found myself seated behind some other Melbourne tourists on the return trip to Circular Quay, when one of them quipped "What a great service. Why don't we have these in Melbourne"? Why not indeed. This made me think that the Wyndham proposal could be helped by some economies of scale. i.e. Why not run services to other destinations as well?

Portsea/Sorrento/Rye/Dromana would be a perfect candidate. No heavy rail and unlikely to ever get it, and a massively congested Nepean Highway and Mornington Peninsula Freeway in the peak to boot. Still technically part of Melbourne, the PTV website informs me that if I were to commute by bus then train, the commute would take an eye watering 2 hours 51 minutes from Portsea to Southern Cross. By car, Tom Tom says it would take 1 hour 42 minutes, notwithstanding any traffic problems, so more than likely close to 2 hours. By Ferry, traveling at an average of 25 knots as per the Wyndham ferry plan, that trip is reduced to a 70 minutes boat trip + 13 minutes tram trip = a mere 1 hour 23 minutes! Similarly, other possible destinations and their comparative travel times are listed below:

Travel times to the Central Business District by mode. For car times, this assumes a clear run in normal traffic; peak-hour travel times could be considerably longer.
DestinationPT Travel TimeCar Travel TimeFerry/Tram Travel Time
Portsea/Sorrento2h 51m1h 42m1h 23m
Rye2h 36m1h 25m1h 28m
Dromana2h 16m1h 08m1h 23m
Mornington1h 45m1h 03m1h 07m
Frankston1h 04m0h 46m1h 00m
Black Rock1h 01m0h 34m0h 34m
Brighton Beach0h 32m0h 27m0h 27m
St Kilda0h 16m0h 18m0h 19m

Obviously some of the above destinations are quite close to the CBD, and don't offer a lot of time savings over traditional Public Transport. However, just like in Sydney, many would have appeal as tourist routes. Even for commuters, they are pretty much immune from delays such as traffic jams and network congestion. Also not all of the above would be run as independent routes. Some could be combined without adding too much overhead to the overall travel time, such as Mornington->Black Rock->Station Pier, with the first 2 stops perfect for such a service due to their lack of a rail connection.

Harbouring doubts - are ferries for Melbourne viable?
Possible Ferry Routes in Port Phillip Bay

As well as bay routes, there is one other route that is ripe for the picking: the Maribyrnong River. Starting at Avondale Heights neat the VU student village, it could stop at: Highpoint Shopping Centre, Edgewater, VU Footscray Campus, Footscray Wharf and eventually an extra stop at the Maribyrnong Explosives Development (proposed population 6000) when its built. With Maribyrnong set for a major density upgrade in the near future, the ferry could provide students, shoppers, young professionals and families with a fast and direct service to the CBD. Better still most of the stops already have a boat landing, and all of them (bar Footscray Wharf) would be serving areas that are currently not served by heavy rail.

Harbouring doubts - are ferries for Melbourne viable?
Maribyrnong Ferry Route

Of course, there are several other criteria which would need to be met in order for ferries to be viable:

  1. Cost: While the current proposed cost of $22 return may seem steep, it should be noted that Sydney's ferries prices are considerably higher than their trains. Despite this, commuters still show a propensity to pay, as long as the service is quicker and more reliable than the alternative.
  2. Travel time: As demonstrated earlier, most routes would offer a considerable time saving over either traditional PT and/or driving. The Wyndham service has promised a commute time of about 40 mins with stops at Altona and Williamstown; quite acceptable when compared to commute times for most other outer suburbs.
  3. Frequency: While train like frequencies of 10-20 mins is probably not viable, services every 30 mins in the peak would probably need to be a minimum.
  4. Capacity: Unlike trains, you can't attach extra carriages to a ferry! And with services only every 30 mins or so, waiting for the next one isn't really an option. So boats will have to be big enough to cope with growth, or be replaced when demand outstrips capacity. This could be pricey if underestimated.
  5. Connectivity: Firstly, space for bikes to cater for people to commute to other destinations should be a given. Secondly, connecting train/tram bus services at the city end. Currently the plan is for services to terminate at Station Pier in Port Melbourne. Apparently there is an option to finish in Docklands, but this is dependent on speed limits along the Yarra being lifted. I can't help but think this is the better option, as the CBD would be the end destination for most commuters, and would provide a better range of options for those that go on. A Circular Quay style ferry interchange would add some great activation to Docklands' Victoria Harbour!

While Trains/Trams/Buses should continue to provide the bulk of Melbourne's public transport needs, there is real potential for ferries to play a secondary role. With the Wyndham Harbour ferry, we have a real chance to provide a snapshot of what may be for other parts of Melbourne. Of course, unlike Sydney, Melburnians aren't accustomed to this mode of transport for commuting, so patience will be required to get patronage to a sufficient level. If that requires some initial government subsidy, then it may be a case of 'short term pain, long term gain'. Queue the music to the Aussie children's TV classic, Ship to Shore!


Editor's Picks