IN the years when the future of the Newcastle heavy rail line was still a subject of heated debate, there were parallel fears that a Sydney-centric state government was just waiting for an opportunity to save a bit more of its transport budget by axing the Stockton ferry.
Thankfully, this didn’t happen, and the ferry continues to operate, run by the French/Australian joint-venture Keolis Downer, which is also operating the government’s Newcastle buses and will run the light rail once construction is completed.
Keolis Downer is promising to revolutionise the way the city’s public transport operates, and the early indications are that it plans to do this by increasing the number of services on offer, rather than cutting them. As things stand, it is running more than 40 ferry services in each direction on weekdays, based on a half-hour frequency but with slightly smaller gaps at the morning peak into Newcastle, and the afternoon peak back to Stockton.
Fears over the future of the ferry were fueled by falling patronage, with the Newcastle Herald reporting a drop of about 100,000 passengers between 2008 and 2011, when the number of annual ticketed boardings fell from 532,000 to 448,000.
The latest Opal card data shows the service is still carrying some 450,000 passengers a year, so in general terms, at least, it appears that the earlier decline in patronage has been stopped. This is good news, and an important consideration in a steadily growing push to have the Stockton ferry service expanded to include at least one – and possibly more – extra stops. As things stand, the government has marked an expanded ferry service as worthy of investigating in the coming “10 to 20 years, subject to business case development”: in other words, it doesn’t see enough demand at present. This is disappointing, because if the government is serious about having thousands more people live and work in a public-transport-oriented CBD, then expanding the ferry run to at least include a stop within easy walking distance of the Wickham transport interchange would seem to be a logical first step.
In its pitch to the government, and to the Hunter public, Keolis Downer made a lot of its commitment to creating seamless, multi-modal public transport systems. Finding a way to turn the Stockton ferry into a broader harbour service could be an early test of its abilities.