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Freshwater Class Manly Ferry Collaroy
As Sydney icons go, they don't get much better than the double ended Manly Ferry. Not in the league of the Opera House or Harbour Bridge, but not far behind. Who visits Sydney from overseas or interstate without a ride across the Harbour on the Manly Ferry?
The first daily service to Manly started in 1856 as part of a plan by the redoubtable entrepreneur Herbert Gilbert Smith to turn the then remote locality into a seaside resort. Ferry rides to Manly were hit and miss in the early days and frankly dangerous in rough weather. But under the management of the Port Jackson Steamship Company, operations reached maturity by the turn of the century. Paddle steamers were progressively replaced by vessels more fit for purpose and with a similar DNA to today's Freshwater Class: double ended screw propulsion, steel hulls, high forecastle to cope with heavy seas crossing the Heads, plentiful outside seating and a passenger capacity in excess 1,000.
Six were built between 1905 and 1922 (Binngarra, Burra-bra, Bellubera, Balgowlah, Barrenjoey (later renamed North Head) and Barragoola) by Morts Dock and Engineering Company. They had operating speeds of about 14 knots, sufficient to make the journey to Manly in 30 minutes. With a 15 minute turnaround at Manly and the Quay, three vessels could operate a 30 minute interval service all day, with one boat spare. More than a century later, the Freshwaters still follow the same pattern.
The current Freshwater Class vessels were introduced over six years, starting with the Freshwater in 1982, followed by the Queenscliff (1983), Narrabeen (1984) and Collaroy (1988).
Friday's newspaper reports suggest that these four vessels will be retired soon, with Transdev Sydney Ferries opting to operate three new Emerald Class catamarans to Manly at higher frequency. This means the demise of the iconic double ended, mono hull Manly Ferry may not be far away.
When decisions are taken about an iconic brand like the Manly Ferry, there are some difficult issues to assess, balancing wider tourist and heritage values with the practical need to operate an efficient public transport system.
It's a complex problem.
Leaving aside the iconic status of the Manly Ferry, even the efficiency issues are not straight forward.
Superficially it looks simple. The Emerald Class boats are fast. They can make the journey from Circular Quay in 20 minutes. With 10 minute turnarounds, three vessels can operate the service at 20 minute intervals. That means a more frequent service with the same number of vessels.
Emerald Class boats only have a crew of three, compared to six on the Freshwaters. That's a big saving in labour costs, plus the flexibility of being able to use the same crew for Manly and inner harbour services.
There is also a massive saving in maintenance costs and fuel.
And finally there is a logic in timing the Freshwater retirements with the planned redevelopment of wharves at Circular Quay. The Freshwaters have special terminal facilities at Jetty 3 at Circular Quay (and Manly) for loading and unloading passengers to the main and upper decks. This will not be required if the Manly run is operated by Emeralds, potentially making an extra berth available at the sorely congested Quay.
The retort to all this will be "but the Freshwaters can carry 1,000 passengers - Emeralds only carry 400". Yes, that's true, but it is rare for a Freshwater to be at more than 50% capacity, other than on a sunny Sunday afternoon. The operator could switch other Emeralds into the Manly runnings for these occasions, increasing frequencies to four or even six per hour. And at six services an hour, that would provide more capacity than the bigger Freshwaters sailing every 30 minutes.
So why is it a complex problem?
The publicly funded Manly Ferry doesn't operate in isolation. The unsubsidised NRMA owned Manly Fast Ferry (arguably more beloved by Manly residents than what they disparagingly call the "slow ferry"), has been a huge success since launching in 2009. The journey is 10 minutes faster; it now departs every 10 minutes in the peaks and 20 minutes off peak; and the fares are not much higher for regular users than Opal fares for the slower, less frequent Freshwaters.
But the Transdev operated Emeralds will be serious competition for the NRMA as the Manly Fast Ferry will lose its speed advantage.
The MFF will also be affected by the recent announcement that the weekly Opal fare cap will be reduced to $50, which only applies to publicly funded public transport. That means a Manly commuter with five return trips per week will pay $28 less by catching an Emerald boat instead of the NRMA peak service. That could be a saving of more than $1,000 a year or significantly more if the journey involves a bus or train connection (also covered by the $50 cap and transfer discounts).
As the Manly Fast Ferry operates close to capacity in the AM peak sailing every 10 minutes, there must be some doubt whether the Emeralds will meet demand from passengers switching over from MFF in the new world. And is it really a good idea to undermine the market of an unsubsidised and innovative operator like Manly Fast Ferries?
I've got a feeling the Freshwaters are not done just yet. Perhaps a compromise solution is possible. Maintenance and fuel costs would be substantially reduced if the Freshwaters were converted to all electric propulsion. With current new technology, the 15 minute turnarounds would be long enough to charge the boats for each 30 minute journey.
This would not offer the efficiency gains that Transdev would achieve by retiring the Freshwaters, but the fuel and maintenance cost savings would still be significant compared to current arrangements.
The move to electric propulsion in ferry transport is sweeping the world, led by Norway as they have with electric cars. Australia needs to get on board at some stage and the Manly Ferry would be a highly visible place to start.
And if you thought the Freshwaters are already iconic, who could fail to be charmed by an all electric Manly Ferry entering Sydney Cove, silent but for the sound of a passing boat's wash slapping on the bow. It would be like the return of the steamers.
This article first appeared on sydneyferry.blogspot.com
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