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.”