a green and sunny day at the devonport ferry terminal with electric lightening bolds over an icon of boats
Fast, efficient and often cancelled, ferry services are set to change (image: Tina Tiller)

SocietyAugust 23, 2023

Do fewer ferry services now mean better boats in the future?

a green and sunny day at the devonport ferry terminal with electric lightening bolds over an icon of boats
Fast, efficient and often cancelled, ferry services are set to change (image: Tina Tiller)

Ferry users in Auckland were told this week that service frequency on key routes is being reduced. At the same time, Auckland Transport is trumpeting their new electric ferries – but they’re still a few years away. 

Every day, thousands of Auckland commuters hop on boats to travel across the Waitematā Harbour and the Hauraki Gulf; ferry services, alongside buses and trains, are crucial to the city’s transport infrastructure. Taking a ferry is mostly a pleasant way to travel, avoids congestion and is usually much more direct than driving or taking a bus across the Harbour Bridge.  

Auckland Transport says that ferry passenger numbers are nearly back to pre-pandemic levels, about six million passengers a year. Despite this, it has just announced that five ferry services in Auckland are set for drastic changes. From October, the Birkenhead, Te Onewa Northcote Point and Bayswater services will be cancelled, and the Gulf Harbour and Half Moon Bay routes will run at reduced frequencies. This is happening at the same time as the transport agency is investing significantly in new, electrified boats, being built with local expertise in Tāmaki Mākaurau and Whanganui. 

The new ferries look great. The fully electric boats have snazzy double hulls and can hold more people. Space for bikes is a priority, as is wider space between seats to make the vehicles more accessible for people with prams or wheelchairs. There are tables where people can work, bigger windows, accessible toilets. But the four refurbished ferries and four hybrid or electric ferries won’t even be half the number required for ferry service to remain at current levels, let alone improve as locations like Hobsonville and Howick rapidly densify. 

The two fully electric ferries under construction in this enormous shed will hold 200 people apiece and can manage short and medium trips across the harbour with only a few minutes pausing to charge at each end. But boats take a while to construct; the nascent ferries on show at McMullen and Wing in Mount Wellington won’t be launched until 2024, and probably won’t be ready for passengers until 2025. In the meantime: cuts. It seems like ferry transport is going to get worse before it gets better. 

a blue and sunny day with a ferry appearing in the water
The Hobsonville ferry is an essential service for this densifying suburb (Image: Shanti Mathias)

Why the cuts?

Although Auckland’s bus driver shortage has ended, the city’s ferries are still understaffed, causing these service reductions. Ferry staff need extra training for safety reasons, which will take place over the next 18 months. Since buses are now running at capacity, AT suggests affected ferry users board the wheeled vehicles instead of their usual boats. 

Stacey van der Putten, AT’s executive manager for public transport, said in a statement that AT is exploring options for additional bus services to serve the ferry passengers, and insisted that although these changes will disappoint passengers, it will ultimately improve reliability and resilience when full services resume. But not everyone agrees.

The response

“AT is discouraging public transport use with these ferry cancellations and reductions – it’ll just force people back into their cars,” said disappointed daily ferry user Maya Pellizzaro-Hurrell. Pellizzaro-Hurrell noted that swapping the ferry for the bus – as AT suggests – would significantly extend her travel time. 

Transport advocate and Bike Auckland chair Karen Hormann said the service reductions will put extra pressure on the already busy Devonport route. The ferries are often already full, which is especially difficult for cyclists, as bikes can’t be put on the bus

a simulated image of blue seats and cartoon people looking out the window onto the auckland shoreline of the CBD
Future ferry passengers will enjoy wide aisles and better views through bigger windows (Image: Auckland Transport)

The pull of the ferry

Pellizzaro-Hurrell, like many others, wants to stick with taking the ferry. “It’s much more pleasant than sitting in a car and getting road rage because of bad driving and the traffic-inducing infrastructure,” she explained. Studies show that access to “blue spaces” like sea views from a ferry is good for mental wellbeing.  

The ferries also have tables to work from, meaning that people who use computers for their work can get mahi done while commuting – more difficult to do on the bus and impossible while driving. Pellizzaro-Hurrell appreciates this, but said that her primary motivation to use the ferry is because of its lower emissions compared to cars. “I ferry because it has less environmental impact than driving to work would.” All those cancelled and reduced ferry services won’t help Auckland meet its (much-maligned) climate goals.

But are the ferries so environmentally friendly? 

The 27 ferries produce the same emissions as 700 buses – half the city’s bus stock – and the 6% of public transport trips by ferry generate about 20% of Auckland’s total public transport emissions. 

Longer routes, like the Gulf Harbour service, are particularly polluting, as these trips are further, at faster speeds, for fewer passengers. The good news for commuters like Pellizzaro-Hurrell is that more environmentally friendly ferries are coming – just not until 2025. 

a render of an electric ferry making it look sleek and menacing but also quite cool and futuristic, doublehulled, a dawn sky with the skytower in the background
Even the ferry renders look futuristic (Image: Auckland Transport)

An electric future

Nathan Cammock, the electrical engineer leading the self-evidently titled “Low Emission Ferry Programme” for Auckland Transport, said electrifying ferries is “low-hanging fruit”. Speaking to The Spinoff at the site where the ferries are being constructed in eastern Auckland, Cammock gestured to the hull of a catamaran-in-progress, showing where a battery could fit. Lots of the issues with the current network are because the boats are older, prone to breaking down, and there are a wide variety of vessel sizes, making it difficult to standardise or meet uneven demand. 

The technology of electric ferries is complex. Because reducing weight is imperative on a floating vessel, the batteries have to be smaller, and the chargers have to be faster – the batteries will require three megawatt charging, which is almost a million times more than the average phone charger, like a torrent of electricity beside the trickle that most people need at home. The electric ferries will be quieter and produce less pollution, which is good for people and for the marine life in the harbour. 

The two electric ferries will be joined by two hybrid ferries, currently being constructed in Whanganui, which will fit 300 people, as well as refurbishing four second-hand ferries that burn diesel. (Two of these, Starflyte and Wanderer, are back in service already.) 

Standing beside the boats-in-progress, their carbon fibre hulls sleek, the panels of the passenger deck being assembled by workers, moving around the awkward size, it’s already possible to imagine these boats on the water, filled with people and bikes, on their way to a more efficient future. Commuters today might be frustrated, and Cammock understands that – after all, he takes the ferry himself, getting to work from his home in the North Shore across the harbour, its moods of fickle blue. 

concrete floor and two catamaran hulls taking shape in a big shed
Auckland’s future ferries, now in progress (Image: supplied by Auckland Transport)

“As a ferry user, I want to rock up to the ferry terminal, have the ferry arrive on time, with enough capacity for me, with enough space for my bike, and I want to know I’ll get to the destination on time – not have my ferry reprioritised for a larger route or break down partway through.” Since starting work on the ferry programme, he’s become fonder of the vessels, keen to enhance their role in the network. Like a boat glimpsed on the horizon, that future could be closer than frustrated ferry users expect.

Keep going!