Harbouring doubts - are ferries for Melbourne viable?

Recently Urban Melbourne 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.
Destination PT Travel Time Car Travel Time Ferry/Tram Travel Time
Portsea/Sorrento 2h 51m 1h 42m 1h 23m
Rye 2h 36m 1h 25m 1h 28m
Dromana 2h 16m 1h 08m 1h 23m
Mornington 1h 45m 1h 03m 1h 07m
Frankston 1h 04m 0h 46m 1h 00m
Black Rock 1h 01m 0h 34m 0h 34m
Brighton Beach 0h 32m 0h 27m 0h 27m
St Kilda 0h 16m 0h 18m 0h 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.

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.

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!
Circular Quay: a blueprint for Victoria Harbour? Image courtesy

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!



Mark Baljak's picture

Great article Martin

I met with Wyndham developer recently for a look around the new development. Much to say but waiting for a public statement next month.

Ferry and Harbour - some jaw-dropping ideas about to come to fruition down there. Ferry will go to Docklands

More to follow

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Marcus W's picture

On the subject of ferries on the Maribyrnong River, after you take the waiting time into consideration, walking along the banks would be faster.

From Parks Victoria:

"SPEED RESTRICTIONS. All boats using the Yarra and Maribyrnong rivers must adhere to the 5 knot (approximately 9 km/h or fast walking pace) speed limit."

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Martin Mankowski's picture

Marcus - This is indeed currently true. As the speed limit along the Yarra is currently under consideration for the Wyndham Ferry, the same would have to be done for the Maribrynong. Initially, I suspect this will be for peak periods only.

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Chris Peska's picture

I like the idea of a ferry network across the bay and I do believe that it makes sense. However, one of the main considerations that was not bought up in the article and one of the hurdles that government is trying to overcome , is how a potential ferry service would fit in with the sea freight traffic heading to the Port of Melbourne? Once this is figured out, the viability of a ferry service would surely increase. Thoughts?

Observe. Design. Build. Live.

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Nicholas Harrison's picture

Ferry services have been proposed between Frankston / Mornington Peninsula a few times over the past 30 years and they have never come close to being viable.

Port Phillip Bay can get very choppy so reliability and Sea sickness would be a problem with trips of more than 30 minutes. The mouth of the Yarra is very busy and getting busier all the time. The big ships would always have right of way so that would also cause reliability problems.

The infrastructure around the bay is not set up for ferry's so new safe mooring structures would need to be constructed and car parking or room for bus stopping is very limited already on the foreshores.

Cost of setting up a commuter ferry service to provide the same standard of service as rail would probably cost as much as reinstating the rail line to Mornington.

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Nicholas Harrison's picture

A study into proving a ferry service along the western side of the bay is currently being undertaken:

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Melbman's picture

A ferry from Werribee and Point Cook into the city has the potential to turn the tide *pardon the pun* on transport delays in the area.

Rail capacity should increase over the coming couple of years when the RRL opens and frees up space for additional Werribee line trains, but additional options would be a huge benefit for the areas expanding population.

Building a Park + Ride type facility at Point Cook (near the airbase) and one at Wyndham Harbour would be great locations to tap into demand, whilst a AVV connection has the potential to make the airport a very compelling option for those on the Eastern shores of the bay.

It may take a few years of losses though to get this all up and running. Add into that equation, yes there will be quite a few days where the weather may well be very dicey (what contingencies would they put in place if ferries are cancelled?), but overall, its a great proposal.

Getting the ferries up into Docklands would be a challenge, but if that can be overcome, that will likely make this turn from a secondary option to a preffered method of transit for many if it is priced correctly.

As for the Maribrynong River idea, I like the concept, but given the width of theriver, I can't see those speed limits changing. Would be a huge benefit for the area though once the Highpoint/ADF site is developed if it could be made time and price competitive though.

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Martin Mankowski's picture

Chris - Good point. Not sure how this will be addressed. Currently the freight traffic has right of way at all times, I wonder if this can be changed for peak times, giving the ferries right of way? Long term, opening a 2nd port facility (Hopefully at Port Wilson, and not Hastings) and even longer term, having all facilities at Point Wilson, would certainly ease the problem.

Nicolaas/Melbman - Riverside Ferries reckon they have addressed the issue of sea sickness:

'Mr Miller said a 226-passenger, 25-metre vessel had been chosen for the route that would include television and free Wi-Fi and was chosen to reduce the likelihood of sea sickness in the bay.
''Riverside call it the V-factor, the vomit factor. What you will find with a 25-metre hull is while there may be some movement, because it is sitting up proud out of the water and it is a twin-hulled Supercat, it will just glide through,'' he said.'

Read more:

Dunno how true it is, but it certainly seems like it would have to be pretty bad conditions for it to be a major problem.

Melbman - I think the park and ride at Point Cook would be an important consideration. Point Cook is a real PT problem child, and a viable Ferry could go a long way to helping, especially those people in the rather large Saltwater Coast development near the Homestead. Good Idea!

Mark - Good to hear Ferry will go to Docklands. Looking forward to hearing the future developments unfolding down at Wyndham Harbour!

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Riccardo's picture

The quoted high fare is only what is really costs, just as Skybus really costs what it does, but the 5:15 to Pakenham isnt priced the same way, but is subsidised, which begs the question, why is some PT subsidised, and some not.

Shouldnt the criteria be congestion and pollution avoided, and not favoured unions, businesses and voters, as at present?

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