Expanding the commuter ferry market

Ausmarine Editorial – June 2016

With most major, and even minor, cities around the world suffering ever worsening commuter traffic congestion, it seems the time is becoming right to introduce more local ferry services in an attempt to reduce the problem.

Obviously, many cities already have extensive and effective commuter ferry systems. Hong Kong, Bangkok, Sydney, Venice, Istanbul, New York, San Francisco, Seattle, Vancouver, Dhaka and, even London, come to mind.

In some of those, the services could beneficially be expanded and in many other cities they could at least be initiated.

Equally obviously, most of those cities also have useful commuter railway systems, usually in the form of undergrounds or Metros. Some city managements are of the view that they are sufficient or, that if you provide more transport options, you will only encourage further crowding and congestion in central business districts.

They are probably partially correct in the latter. I have seen for myself the result of significant widening of highways and turnpikes. They just attract more vehicles and, after a couple of years, the traffic seems as bad as before the widening.

Anyway, trains, particularly underground or Skytrains, are undeniably safe and convenient and have other virtues. However, they are far less pleasant than ferries, and railways are far more expensive to build and operate. Some, such as the London Underground and Paris Metro can be very sweaty and smelly.

As you would expect, I am a great exponent of ferry travel but I do, of course, realise that there are certain important pre-conditions that must be met before a commuter ferry service can be initiated or expanded. The first and most important is, obviously, that you must have a convenient
semi-sheltered waterway such as a river or harbour.

The second is that there must be reasonably convenient access to berthing points along that waterway. You also require an economically rational maritime bureaucracy.

Finally, you need reasonably benign weather. It’s a bit difficult to run a ferry service if the route is iced for six months of the year – although Stockholm doesn’t do too badly in that regard.

Except where ferry services have been in place for many years as in Hong Kong, Bangkok, Istanbul or Sydney, for example, it is often difficult to persuade local bureaucracies that they are worth the trouble.

It took many years of hard work and hard lobbying to get such services established in London and Brisbane. Now, of course, the locals wonder how they ever survived without them.

Apart from the cities mentioned above, where I believe ferry services could mostly be significantly expanded, there are others I can think of where they could beneficially be established. I have in mind Hamburg, Frankfurt and Cologne in Germany where they could well service many of the outer suburbs. Perth in Australia has a wonderful river that would lend itself to dramatically expanded ferry services.

Glasgow and Edinburgh are possibilities as are Nantes and Lyons in France. Rio de Janeiro and Buenos Aires could both do a lot more. Singapore has enormous potential but suffers from some of the smallest minded bureaucrats on the planet. It has bad traffic which fast, low-wash ferries could do much to alleviate. Even Manila, which has shocking traffic, has the expansive Manila Bay and the river which could be much better utilised. Shanghai could do much more although its bitter winters require much better ferries than its current crop.

Surabaya, Jakarta, Saigon, Kolkata, Mumbai, the UAE cities, Mombasa, Dhaka and Lagos are some of the cities with massive traffic problems that could be reduced if they were to introduce better, safer, more attractive boats.

Even Melbourne, where this magazine is based, offers opportunities. While the Yarra River is heavily speed restricted, the wide-open Port Phillip, on which the city is located, has some potential. Indeed, a brave transport entrepreneur and property developer, Paul Little, has not been put off by a number of previous failures and is currently introducing a limited service using, very wisely, chartered ferries. I hope he succeeds because Melbourne traffic seemingly gets worse by the day.

All this, of course, will be of benefit to the world’s ferry designers and builders who, these days, seem mostly to be located in Australia and the Netherlands. Our old friends at Incat have done very well lately with, unusually for them, a number of smallish commuter ferries for London and Sydney.

Similarly, Damen has, as usual, been selling commuter ferries all over the world while Australia’s One2Three, AMD and Incat Crowther, among others, have been selling designs globally including, interestingly, to the United States where at least the idiotically self-destructive Jones Act does not preclude the purchase of foreign designs.

I like travelling on commuter ferries. I also like their commercial potential and their ability to at least ameliorate road congestion problems. Self-driving cars are all very well but they still result in more vehicles on the roads.