Sydney ferries are beaut. We chose our current house because it is close to a ferry wharf. Getting a ferry to and from a concert in the city confirms one’s feelings that there is much right with the world.
So it’s a great pity the Sydney Ferries are so incompetently managed. The mismanagement is well described in painful detail in a report by Brett Walker to the NSW government in 2007. Even if you are not interested in the ferries, the report is worth reading as an example of why governments should never run businesses.
The business has been reorganized many times of the past 10-15 years. It has been moved about the Transport Department (at one point, when it was part of City Transit ferries were repainted blue to match the busses), corporatised then uncorporatised. Even when it was the responsibility of a board, the minister (without authority) interfered by firing a chief executive and vetoing a maintenance contract.
Hardly the way to attract and motivate high quality managers. So it’s no surprise the the business has chewed up six chief executives over eight years. If you read Walker’s report it is clear that the greatest problem is union capture. Walker does not mention it but if you ride on a ferry you might see that it carries an engineer as well as a master and a deckhand. The engineer’s job became redundant in the mid 70s when the current generation of ferries was commissioned.
Walker recommended that expressions of interest be sought from companies interested in taking over management of the ferries. He said the the Manly Jetcat service was so inefficient and loss-making that it should be closed immediately.
The government accepted the report in principle and invited expression of interest. And it did close the Jetcat service. But then a company whose main business was running whale watching cruises offered to run the Manly fast service. That seemed to make sense as the fast services only cater for the peak house commuter runs and the vessels could go whale watching in the middle of the day.
The service started early 2009 and was successful despite the noisy pickets from the Maritime Union. Then early this year the government announced that another company would take the contract. That company had no experience and owned no vessels. It did however have a record of getting along with unions. The first company did not give up. It continued to operate, using different wharves.
Just stop and think about that for a minute. The Manly fast ferry service, run by Sydney Ferries, was making large losses and considered irredeemable by the government. But now we have two private companies competing without subsidy to do the run.
If that run can be make profitable, it seems almost certain that a private operator could run the rest of Sydney Ferries very well.
So what did the government do? In December it announced that the ferries would remain under government management. The Premier explained the decision thusly: “This is a tough decision, but it is the right one. Over the last few weeks, I have listened to the community and responded. We believe the decision to keep Sydney Ferries in public hands is in the best interests of Sydneysiders,”
Most observers believe she listened to the Maritime Union rather than the community.
Then the other day the government announced that several routes will have less frequent services (hourly during the day), including mine.
The Liberal Party, almost certain to win government at the next election has said it will grant franchises to private operators to run the ferries. But as past Liberal governments have never had the courage to reform transport I would not bet on it happening.