Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Ferry price comparisons

I got curious to find out whether there is anywhere else in the world that is in a similar situation as Waiheke Island, i.e. a good-sized commuter population that is dependent on a ferry service to get to its main workplace. I'm surprised it's rather difficult to find and to compare prices as many different options exist and passes cover more or fewer other transport modes too (perhaps you could make me some suggestions).

In New Zealand, there is the Wellington ferry to Eastbourne, which costs $245 a month. Of course, Eastbourne commuters have plenty of other transport options.

Overseas, there is the Seattle to Vashon Island route. A monthly pass (valid for 31 return rides in a calendar month) costs US$118 (NZ$166). Comparison with Waiheke is difficult: there is no weekend service to Vashon and only three sailings a day during the week. The pass also doesn't cover any other transport mode. The monthly pass to Fauntleroy (West Seattle), which has many more sailings, costs US$55 (NZ$78).
The San Diego to Coronado ferry is free to commuters.
Many ferry services are to islands which also have road access (and thus an alternative for commuters), i.e. the Staten Island Ferry in New York, which is free of charge. The Sydney ferry system is another. Yearly combined ferry/bus passes are between A$1,280 (NZ$1,562) and A$2,200 (NZ$2,684) depending on the zones travelled. Inner harbour ferries in Boston cost commuters US$198 (NZ$279) a month (Commuter Boat Pass also good for unlimited travel on Local Bus, Subway, Express Bus, Inner Harbor Ferry, and Zones 1-4 on Commuter Rail). None of the destinations are islands.
The Alameda-Oakland ferry in San Francisco charges US$170 (NZ$240) for 20 return trips within a calendar month
The Hong Kong Star ferry between Central and Tsim Sha Tsui costs HK$110 (NZ$20) a month. Of course there many other transport options in Hong Kong and the public transport has the wonderfully integrated Octopus Card system.
In Vancouver all-mode monthly passes (including SeaBus) cost between C$73 (NZ$99) and C$136 (NZ$184) depending on the number of zones.
In Scandinavia, Malmö has now become a suburbs of Copenhagen, thanks to the Øresund bridge/tunnel linking the two. Ferries are not really the preferred commuter option there.
In Maine, Peaks Island Frequent Rider costs US$87 (NZ$123.50). Cliff Island costs US$127.50 (NZ$181).
Isle of Wight (Ryde to Portsmouth) fast ferry costs £150.80 (NZ$392)

So, in summary, the Auckland to Waiheke commuter ferry service is one of the most expensive stretch of water in the world. Regards the Isle of Wight fare, one should consider UK wages are way higher than in NZ, and so I would still posit that Waiheke actually is the most expensive fare in the world.

Annus horribilis continues

Adding insult to injury, as one of my fellow commuters put it succinctly, Fullers ferries is having another season of engine breakdowns, shoddy service and a general Winter of discontent among its customers. It doesn't seem to be enough for them to announce extraordinary inflated price rises, but to reduce the service to a slow trickle akin to water torture.
Last night the hordes waiting for the 6.30pm had a sinking feeling all was not well, what with the Jet Raider already out of action for over a week, and now the Discoverer laid up with engine trouble too. It was left to that dinky toy, Quickcat II, to do a major commuter run and it chugged into port already 10 minutes late. The hardworking Fullers tannoy announcer (almost as hardworking as the Fullers ferry delay/cancellation text information disseminator) tried to assure us it would only be five minutes - but we all know what Fullers' definition of 5 minutes is: it's comparable to its claim the journey time to Waiheke is 35 minutes, but not many boats have actually achieved that claim without blowing a gasket.
So we all filed onto the Quickcat II (it always reminds me of live sheep shipments) to be squashed together and with knowledge that not everybody would be able to board. Packed to the rafters and all set to go, the captain informed us that we would not be leaving until St John's Ambulance staff had picked up a patient off the boat, who had been lying in sick bay when everybody got on. And the ambulance wasn't turning up soon.
Meanwhile the Superflyte was arriving back from Waiheke - as if it was lapping the Quickcat II in a cycle race. Now the captain informed us that Superflyte would be leaving at 7.15pm and would make it to Waiheke far faster than his toy boat could. So the hordes disembarked to change boats, filing past the mortified patient again, who I hope didn't think it was his fault he inconvenienced those 200 people.
So my commuting time last night from work to home took three hours. No apology from Fullers on Superflyte, not even a discounted drink on board. Surely Fullers is an odds-on favourite for worst customer service company in New Zealand.

After a flurry of press activity on and off-island (with a promise of article in the next Herald on Sunday to come), the rock dwellers are now looking at what more direct action to take when the fare hikes bite come Monday. We've been asked to wear black to mourn the death of diversity on Waiheke by all that economic cleansing, and a symbolic coffin will be carried.

I've added my $44 worth:
- Boycott the ferry cafes longterm. They've pocketed your $44 drinks budget already in the monthly pass price rise
- Ask the ARC/ARTA to cancel the alcohol purchase restrictions and replace their on-board licences with BYO licences. If you can bring your coffee on board, why not your own beer?
- Ask the Commerce Commission to launch an inquiry into the monopolistic and anti-competitive practices by Fullers/Stagecoach/Infratil, looking at the barriers for a competitive service on the Waiheke ferry service, and the dereliction of duty by ARTA/ARC when they allowed Fullers to buy Pacific Ferries.
- Ask the ARC/ARTA to call for tenders for a competitive service, including integrated ticketing on buses to prevent level field distortions
- Ask the ARC/ARTNL/ACC to refund the $20 a month wharf charge to passengers, which is now being pocketed by Fullers. No wharf charges should be imposed especially as third world conditions on Pier 2 persist. Wharves should be funded from general infrastructure investment (as trains stations and bus stops are), not from a departure tax. (And since Waiheke passengers paid for all the Auckland region wharves, can we now assume proper ownership of them too, so we can set our own charges for use)

Friday, August 15, 2008

An extra turn of the screw

Fullers have finally formulated the way they are going to increase patronage, encourage tourism to Waiheke Island and generally care for the economic well-being of the island: they're putting the fares up by three times the current inflation rate.
A monthly pass will now cost $344 (up from $300, or 15%). A simple fun day out for your family and kids will now cost a small fortune and it'll be cheaper and more convenient to throw them all in the car and drive to Raglan or Ruakaka instead.

The "justification" the company gives is the usual baloney of increased operating and fuel costs (needless to say fares never come down when oil prices fall).
So the economic cleansing of the island continues apace: higher ferry fares will make people look at relocating off-island closer to work, if they have to commute; make it more costly to "import" workers who need to reverse commute to Waiheke (accommodation on the island is hardly affordable for low paid service workers anyway) so provision of services will become more expensive on Waiheke; and it will encourage people on fixed incomes, such as pensioners, to cash up and move out, which is also encouraged by relentless property tax increases imposed by a city council bent on keeping its income stream safe rather than focusing on how much more they rake off the island than spend there in services.

The Fullers-friendly owners of two local newspapers (Marketplace and Waiheke Week) faithfully reprinted the Fullers press release with little comment. Perhaps the deadlines were cleverly observed by the Fullers PR people. But it didn't prevent Waiheke Week (you can always rely on Merv to take the hard-done-by-capitalist company corner against the tree-hugging, rabble-rousing islanders) from editorialising that Fullers has no responsibilities towards Waiheke's economic or social well-being, and new island developments such as Ridgeview and Isola Estate will bring in extra passengers of a kind that never need to look at their black American Express card account, let alone a ferry fare ticket.

You can't blame Fullers for loyally carrying out what any monopoly business would do if it was it its place: squeeze the customer pips til they squeak. Infratil shareholders demand their dividend for buying up the business, and there is no regulator standing in the way of charging the highest fares and delivering the lowest service possible.
So there's the rub: the Auckland Regional Council and its toothless transport regulator have no say in whatever gouging a company like Fullers can engage in, simply because Fuller refuses to accept a subsidy for the Waiheke run as it would come with financial and regulation strings attached. Now it has no minimum service requirements; it can cancel sailings when it wants; organise schedules as it pleases; charge fares it can get away with and employ boats of a dubious quality on its runs. In short, it wants us to pay a first class fare for a cattle class service.

Coincidentally, BBC Hardtalk interviewed Ryanair boss Michael O'Leary last night, saying his business model to attract more customers is to keep on slashing prices and make costs as transparent as possible for passengers. You can now fly "anywhere" in Europe for £10 on his airline and promised not to impose fuel charges on his customers.
Here in New Zealand we have also signs of market forces working in favour of customers in the airline and bus travel industries: Pacific Blue and The Naked Bus offer enticing fares to places all over New Zealand at prices that wouldn't be possible under monopoly conditions. So basically all we need is a "Naked Ferry" company to come in to put a rocket under the Jet Raider and stick it up Fullers where the sun don't shine.

What is now needed is an official inquiry by the Auckland Regional Council into why there is no effective competition possible on the Hauraki Gulf and the ways to remedy this market failure. One clue is the integrated ticketing arrangement between Fullers Ferries, the Waiheke Bus Company and Stagecoach Bus, which allows seamless transfers for commuters (only those with monthly passes) between transport modes. Any new company coming in can't offer this considerable advantage and this has to change by region-wide integrated ticketing between bus, train and ferries with a capped price on monthly usage.
So come on, ARC Chairman Mike Lee, where are your market credentials and your monopoly busting skills when we need them?

UPDATE 1: This morning (18 Aug) Fullers warned passengers on the morning commuter boats that a smaller vessel would be in service due to a Jet Raider "technical failure". It may lead to passengers being denied boarding the 8am sailing. So I took the 7.20am which was more packed than usual. It is clear that Fullers really isn't up to its task of transporting passengers comfortably, at a reasonable price and on time.

UDPATE 2: A version of this blog entry was sent to the NZ Herald as a letter to the editor (which they don't put online) and my fellow commuters shouted that it was splashed all over the page as a headline. Which made me blush, of course. But I hope it will shame Fullers into pulling their socks up and reconsider this price hike as a PR disaster.

UPDATE 3: I mailed this blog entry to all Auckland councillors on the Auckland Regional Council and Chairman Mike Lee got back to me:
"I have raised this issue with ARTA in terms of what we can do and will respond in more detail as soon as possible.
I completely share your concerns especially given the news that some very questionable arrangement has enabled Fullers to pocket the public's wharf tax component of the ticket. I have raised these concerns in the media to put the spotlight on Fullers."