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Sun, salt and breeze: a defence of the Freshwater ferry fleet

Rarely is public transport credited with healing pain, but so went a passenger’s recollection of a trip aboard the Manly ferry during World War II: “Sun, salt, seagulls and a breeze … one could feel a balm to the soul.”

For many, the ships of the Manly ferry service have been spaces of respite and reflection. For others, they have been a vantage point from which to witness Sydney Harbour’s beauty. That these experiences can be had for the price of a ticket reveals a powerful idea: that such moments themselves can be a public good.

A Freshwater ferry passes the Sydney Opera House ... would the latter have been built had it been subjected to a crude cost-benefit analysis? Yet its economic return for Sydney is not questioned today.

A Freshwater ferry passes the Sydney Opera House … would the latter have been built had it been subjected to a crude cost-benefit analysis? Yet its economic return for Sydney is not questioned today. Credit:Dominic Lorrimer

Today, the service is at a pivotal moment. The NSW Transport Minister Andrew Constance announced last year that the state’s four Freshwater-class vessels, the biggest of the Sydney fleet, would be retired, replaced by smaller, faster and more frequent boats belonging to the Emerald-class. Following a public backlash, and from none other than Constance’s Liberal colleague, the Manly MP James Griffin, the government commuted the sentence of one – then a second – Freshwater. It will keep them in service, restricted to weekends and public holidays, until at least 2023.

What becomes of the other two, however, is unclear. The minister has suggested one could be scuttled to become a dive site — an ignominious end for a vessel that, more so than any of its predecessors, represents a deep faith in well-designed, innovative and generous transport provision.

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