By Julian Bajkowski
Indefatigable Minister for Transport in New South Wales, Gladys Berejiklian, has again defied conservative critics of the state’s struggling public transport infrastructure and announced a big boost to Sydney’s revered but loss-making ferry services to finally make them more useful to commuters.
The NSW government has finally unveiled its long-expected 20-year plan for the iconic watercraft that for decades have been stranded between a scenic yet slow way to get to work and the cheapest recreational harbour cruise in town.
Successive Labor and Coaliton governments have struggled to make the ferries a viable business but been prevented from scuttling or selling off services because of risk of an overwhelming backlash from the public and the tourism industry.
In contrast to other transport modes, demand for Sydney’s ferries goes into overdrive on weekends, especially Sunday, while being shunned for their slowness on regular work days.
To help fix that imbalance, Ms Berejiklian has pledged that the government will now invest in “modern, new vessels” with the first six to start plying the harbour by 2016.
At the same time the government claims it is restoring 140 ferry services “scrapped by the previous government” while delivering 50 new ferry services including 25 new services on the tidally troubled Parramatta River run.
Ms Berejiklian has also torn-up the present leisurely timetable in favour of “more direct and frequent ferry services with reduced travel time for many customers.”
A major deterrent to commuting on the water over the years has been the time consuming, milk-run style of stops for ferry services that has boats traversing both sides of the harbour en-route to their destinations – often when there are very few passengers embarking or jumping off.
This contrasts with the rising demand for transport services from recently built, high density residential developments near established or potential wharves that the government is betting will become better patronised if faster, more frequent and reliable services are put into action.
A centrepiece of the new plan is the development of a new ferry hub at Barangaroo, the location of the massive and highly contentious proposed high-roller casino and hotel development being pushed by gaming and media tycoon, James Packer that the O’Farrell government has warmed to.
The addition of a second ferry hub has the potential to ease growing pressure on the existing central exchange at Circular Quay because it could deposit workers bound for the CBD close to the northern part of the city.
The government now says it “will investigate establishing new wharves for future services” at Rhodes, Glebe Point, Johnstons Bay (near the Anzac Bridge), Woolloomooloo and Elizabeth Bay as well as moving a wharf at Birchgrove to meet future demand.
But to speed services up the government says it will have to cull services from “very low patronised wharves” in locations including Balmain West.
More controversially the government says it will be franchising Sydney Ferries and bringing in a new operator to improve customer service.
Less clear is whether private ferry services will run on the Opal smartcard ticketing system that is supposed to finally replace the junked Tcard project that never made it into service and produced only litigation and cost overruns after a decade of planning and development.
While Sydney Ferries has already been testing the Opal Card at some locations, the potential for private ferry operators to work outside the integrated system is a worry for transport advocates because of its potential to return fares to the dark ages of individual tickets per transit mode.
According to the government it is keen to pursue a policy of “maximising the opportunity for private operators to supplement these services with new routes, by providing access to wharves and reforming passenger transport legislation.”
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