Could water transport be the key to Melbourne’s future?

Moving Well | Peter Wilmoth | Posted on 31 January 2020

The challenges and opportunities for water-based public transport in Melbourne. 

It’s a brilliant Sunday afternoon and I’m cruising along the Yarra River, enjoying the sun and scenery, and contemplating what a lovely way this would be to commute to work. On board with me are a group of experts in water transport and urban design, here for Commuter Afloat, a floating forum organised as part of last year’s Melbourne Design Week to discuss the challenges and opportunities for water-based public transport in Melbourne. 

“How many people use water as public transport?” the crowd is asked. Not one hand goes up. “What about overseas?” Lots of hands.  

Ferry docked in Geelong

The story of transport on Melbourne’s waterways is a long and challenging one. Unlike Sydney’s popular and cost-effective ferries, the idea of public transport on the Yarra River has often been floated – so to speak – but has never really worked. Recreational vessels abound but few are taking people to work.

So what’s the problem? It’s a mix of practicality and cost: the Yarra’s low speed limit for boats – five knots – means there are quicker and cheaper land-based options such as trams and trains. Boats on the Yarra have mainly been pleasure craft for tourists, ‘booze cruises’ or romantic trips.

That’s been the mindset for decades, but there may be some progress. In 2016 Port Phillip Ferries began a three-year trial of ferry services between Melbourne and Portarlington, and have now signed a contract to service Geelong.

“It started slowly, but year on year now we’re increasing numbers by 30 to 40 per cent a year,” says Murray Rance, head of Port Phillip Ferries, the brainchild of former Toll Holdings boss Paul Little.

We’re starting to teach people that there is an alternative; they don’t always have to look for road and rail. It’s a completely different way of travelling.

The Portarlington-Melbourne service attracts commuters and tourists in equal numbers. “What the Portarlington trial has told us is that there is a real opportunity to provide a very viable and comfortable service, not just for that area but for the whole of Port Phillip Bay,” Murray says.  

 “We’re starting to teach people that there is an alternative; they don’t always have to look for road and rail. It’s a completely different way of travelling. It’s a beautiful way to travel, you're always guaranteed a seat, free wifi, a cafe.”

He says the operation is now proposing services for the other side of the bay for people in Mornington and Portsea. Yarra services are also on the agenda. 

“We could certainly go up the Yarra,” he says. “We’ve done some surveys along the river. It needs for the government to look at some infrastructure around the bay because you can’t pull up these 70-tonne, 35-metre-long vessels next to a little old pontoon. But there’s a real opportunity, we think, for the state to really embrace water travel. It’s just changing people’s habits and we’ve been working on that.”

Man on ferry taking photo of sports stadium
Boat on Yarra River

Although Yarra River transport would require specialised vessels that could pass under low bridges, Murray says the speed limit doesn’t pose a problem. “The trials that we’ve done show the five knots works but you need to get numbers [of people] on the vessels,” he says.

“We’ll need to design environmentally friendly vessels that are low, and take into account the safety of other river users. If you do it properly and put the right plans in place it could work. The trials we’ve done from Church Street to Flinders Street Station take 17 minutes. A train is 13 minutes. You’re not far off the mark.”

Yarra River transport has long been a dream of former state MP Clem Newton-Brown, who once ran a tour service on the river. His plans for growth were limited by the five-knot speed limit, designed to protect rowers east of the Swanston Street bridge. But he says the speed limit could be increased down river from Docklands, where the river widens.

Another boost for river transport would be a ferry terminal near Chapel Street to take people to Rod Laver Arena, Southgate or the CBD. Clem says this would help give the operator return rather than just one-way business. 

“That’s the sweet spot where it just might work as people will be travelling in both directions at all times of the day, so you avoid travelling empty. You can probably get to your destination as fast as going by tram or train and probably at a reasonable price if you’ve got volume.” 

Clem Newton Brown standing on dock in Melbourne

Dreaming big with a little boat

Clem Newton-Brown has been pondering local water transport for two decades. In 1992 he applied for a boat licence to operate a commuter and leisure service. “I thought, ‘I’ve got an old boat, why don’t I try and get a water taxi licence?’ So I did. Since then there’s been one other operator in 30 years.”

Clem operated the service for 15 years, offering tours as well as commuting. But he did it only as a hobby. “It wasn’t like I was going to have a fleet of water taxis. If there was a booking I would set it up and go. But I pretty quickly realised there was no demand for water taxis, and focused on tours instead.

“I’d get a call ‘Can you pick me up, I want to go to work.’ I’d have to charge them an hour to get to Hawthorn and back: $250. It was ‘Thanks but no thanks’. It was very clear early on what people would be prepared to pay. They might do it once on a nice day but it’s not going to be a regular thing. It’s not cost-competitive. It was more expensive and not any quicker than public transport. 

This year’s Melbourne Design Week runs 12 to 22 March and among myriad events will look at the role design plays in reframing Melbourne’s relationship with water.