Halifax’s new ferries: do we really need them?

Halifax’s Metro Transit is about to drop a few bills on new, faster ferries. They say that the new ships will decrease the time taken to do the current run, aiming for a top speed of 20 knots, more than double the current speed of 8 knots. On such short routes it’s hard to believe they’d hit 20 knots for very long, though the ride will definitely be faster. The simple question, however, is whether we actually need to spend the money on new boats.

With some (relatively) simple changes to the boarding ramps, the time taken to load and unload the boat at each end could be slashed by more than half. I estimate that this would allow for an additional crossing per boat per hour on the Halifax to Dartmouth run. How, you ask?

Currently, the same ramp is used to board and unload. Passengers wait far from the boat and the alighting passengers walk all the way past them to exit. Once the last passenger is confirmed to have left the passage, the doors are unlocked and the new passengers walk down to the ferry for boarding. This takes approximately five minutes, or 1/3 of the time taken to make the crossing. If a second ramp was installed on the outside of the dock, alighting passengers could leave via a dedicated route. Boarding passengers would already be down the ramp waiting for the ferry to arrive. Now, the second the final passenger has left, the alighting doors can be locked and the boarding doors unlocked, cutting the transfer time to approximately 2 minutes.

The current ferry design
The current ferry terminal design.

With this change, trips would take 12 minutes instead of 15, allowing a fifth hourly crossing to be added. By shaping the jetty to look like a funnel, the ferries will not have a hard time docking, even in high winds (I dock an underpowered sailboat in a narrow dock in decently rough seas while in reverse on a regular basis). Surely this will cost less than purchasing new ferries, and will require fewer ferries to do the run.

If the ferries are in bad shape, then yes, we should look at replacing them. The new ferries should allow for two-sided alighting in order to make the proposed design change, allowing even more passengers to be carried well into the future. Since staff are paid on an hourly/salaried basis, the only added cost of additional crossings when the ferry is already operating is an increase in fuel consumption and a modest increase in maintenance costs.

These times have been gleaned from 4 separate observations of the ferry’s operations. More testing would be needed to confirm the improvement in speed. Times are taken from the moment the first passenger alights to the moment the doors close for the ferry to depart.

The proposed new design
The proposed new design