This article was first published in the Autumn/Winter 2016 issue of International Cruise & Ferry Review. All information was correct at the time of printing, but may since have changed
If ferries are so socially useful in taking vehicles off the roads and helping the environment, why are new routes so difficult to establish? Why do some domestic or international ferry routes flourish while others founder? Why are there such conspicuous gaps in the worldwide provision of ferries, such as in coastal US, where there seems to be every reason to operate them?
There are no easy answers to any of these questions and as always, it very much depends who you ask. It might seem perfectly logical, in a country with a vast seaboard and hopelessly congested interstate highways, for the US to encourage the establishment of fast and reliable coastal ferry services. But within the life of every administration, it may be confidently predicted, there will be an investigation of how coastal shipping could ease landside congestion. It will produce convincing arguments in favour of such a policy – the last such probe, by the US Maritime Administration, even offered a whole suite of different designs capable of speeding freight around the coasts. But sadly, three years on and nothing at all has happened, with the designs still unused and left on the drawing board and awaiting the next great initiative.
It is said that any major infrastructural investment, whether we are considering fixed links over land or sea, a nuclear power station, or a new airport, require the conjunction of funds for investment, technical abilities and political will to make it happen. All three are essential and the absence of any one of them will guarantee failure. The background to the provision of ferries is no different. Putative ferry operations in the US have faced a massive obstacle with the lack of any political pressure to permit a ferry operator to charter ships abroad for a service. Thus, the colossal cost of building big ships in American shipyards effectively prevents any sensible startup.
In a more rational world, with a range of freight ferries available for hire on the global market, an operator wishing to ‘prove’ a route would undertake this with a chartered vessel, minimising his exposure at the most vulnerable time, as he seeks to market the seaborne alternative. As the route expands, something more ambitious is chartered and then, when there is an established trade and bankable future prospects, he might think about building the ideal ships. Sadly, the overwhelming demand to protect US shipyard jobs, in conjunction with the immutability of the Jones Act, will forever keep US coastal ferries in fantasy land.
It is such a pity, when lessons from Europe and the Far East, demonstrate just what some political will, maritime technology and investment can accomplish between them. The European Commission’s Motorways of the Sea project may have had its critics, but has been successful in the start up of new ferry operations across the western Mediterranean, Atlantic seaboard and south from Scandinavia. And while it might be arguable that large and established ferry operators are capable of standing on their own feet and coping with the risk of route-proving, the cushion provided by the project has undoubtedly persuaded operators into taking the risk of finding customers for new routes, with which they might otherwise not have bothered.
Subsidies, maintains Stuart Ballantyne of the Australian design house Sea Transport Corporation, are by no means necessary, with a route made viable by good technical design. Nearly 30 years ago, his Peninsula Searoad service was established across the mouth of Melbourne’s Port Philip Bay, where for generations, other ferry operators had failed to make a living. Cleverly designed multi-hulled craft operating at a reasonable speed with sensibly manned ships and terminals, he maintains, have succeeded here, as elsewhere. The route now carries some 300,000 vehicles and nearly one million passengers annually, who save around 250km of road journey by the ferry crossing.
Over the years Ballantyne, who has successfully introduced Sea Transport catamaran designs into routes from the Scottish islands to the Caribbean, has demonstrated that well designed ships can reduce costs and make ferry routes viable, without public money being involved. He argues that there is a whole range of advantages that are seldom employed in the consideration of the ferry alternative. Getting trucks and other vehicles off roads offers societal advantages in the saving of lives by preventing road accidents, along with the reduction of both congestion and emissions. The costs of this life saving ought, he suggests, to enter the equation.
A recent Sea Transport initiative has been the establishment of a brand new ro-pax service across South Australia’s Spencer Gulf, which saves drivers the wear and tear of a 350km road trip and is now carrying 35,000 vehicles. The right craft for a route, operating with modest port infrastructure, he insists can succeed. It is this track record which has empowered this notably outspoken naval architect to urge governments and others in his adopted homeland to consider the manifold advantages of properly designed coastal ferries to free up the congested and hazardous roads around the eastern and southern seaboard of Australia. It is the right craft for the route which makes the difference, he continually emphasises, pointing to the substantial list of money making ferry operations that are in operation throughout the world.
However, is it only ship design that will make the difference between success and failure in a ferry operation? It is certainly a major contributor and the use of an unsuitable ship has on occasion proved a major handicap. Integration of the ferry service with other connections is an important contributor. No ferry operator makes friends by scheduling a ship to sail at the same time that a major trans-European train steams into the port in time for all its passengers to miss their ship. It used to happen in the port of Ostend in Belgium, and unsurprisingly the ferry company no longer exists, partly as a result of the collective rage of frustrated passengers.
One of the reasons that the MBNA Thames Clippers operate successfully in the Port of London today, when so many other operators over the years have failed, is this element of connectivity. Speaking recently at an event to announce the Port of London’s vision for the tidal Thames, the Deputy Mayor for Transport Val Shawcross (helpfully a transport professional), pointed out that integration of transport services was the key to a successful river bus service, with interoperability of tickets a recent important development.
Thames Clippers, whose CEO Sean Collins began with a single craft in 1999, now operates 15 catamarans and carries some 3.8 million passengers per year. The latest catamarans, 35m ultra-low wash, 150-passenger, waterjet-propelled craft were delivered earlier this year and are already demonstrating their fuel-saving capabilities.
A supportive environment, in the port authority’s encouragement for growth – it is anticipating passenger numbers to double by 2035 – considerable investment in the provision of modern piers and a highly professional river traffic service have also helped. The growth, suggests Collins, will come from the expansion of the city downstream, with a huge increase in residential construction, implying a need for more piers and ferry services. Thames Clippers now employs some 230 permanent staff, has a well developed apprenticeship scheme to train its staff and plays a major role in the renaissance of the river. Its considerable visibility helps to promote awareness of water transport and in many respects, shows foreign visitors just what is possible in short-range water transport for both commuting and tourism.
While positive signs can be found in the full range of ferry operations from large international craft to local waterbus services, there are serious obstacles that need to be addressed. Although there might be supportive political will in helping to promote ferries, for all the reasons enumerated above, other politically-driven issues tend to a less positive effect. The enforcement of emission regulations, for instance, militates heavily against ferries which spend their days in emission control areas and faces their operators with very expensive choices.
The Energy Efficiency Design Index regulations will affect the next generation of ships, treat ferries and ro-ros in an inequitable fashion. In urban areas, strict controls on the emissions from landside diesel engines are likely to eventually find their way afloat. Virtually every commercial craft on the Thames, for instance, is currently driven by diesel.
Technology will, in time, surely provide clean solutions. Ferries are already demonstrating clean operations in Scandinavian waters using shorepower in port, LNG fuel and the more radical solutions of batteries and hybrid machinery. The risk is that the uncertainties of environmental regulations, along with the costs of clean operations may constrain growth, where it is arguably most greatly needed. It is an argument that will intrude itself into this important maritime sector in the coming years.