Monday, November 05, 2007


Learning about ferries- the Rochester ferry failure

by Larry Geller

They tried everything:

The ferry featured two movie theater rooms, a restaurant, two bars, wireless internet access, duty free shopping, and a children's play area. Fares start at $29 for an off-peak one-way walk-on ticket, plus a $5 passenger annoyance fee. A summer walk-on round trip was $74/person, which is quite competitive compared to Amtrak or Greyhound.

This was the Rochester-Ontario ferry, which explains the duty-free shopping. It is comparable to the Superferry, and was built by Austal in Perth, Australia. More details on the ship and its history can be found in Wikipedia. In its design it resembles the Superferry, also an Austal product.

Spirit of Ontario I has a gross tonnage of 6,242 and a capacity for 774 passengers with 238 car-equivalents (or a maximum of 10 trucks and 150 cars). The vessel is powered by four 8,200 kW diesel engines which drive four waterjets, giving a maximum speed of 83 km/h (45 knots) when fully loaded.

The engines may be the same or similar. For the Rochester ferry:

The four MTU 20V Series 8000 cylinder diesel engines deliver a total propulsive power of 44,000 HP (32,800 kW) at a rated speed of 1150 rpm. [Austal, MTU:Power on Display in NYC,]

The Hawaii Superferry has

Installation of the four MTU 8000 Series engines is now complete in the first of two[ferries], Austal Auto Express 107 metre vehicle-passenger ferries for Hawaii Superferry (HSF) currently under construction at Austal’s USA shipyard. Each 45 tonne engine has 20 cylinders, and produces 8,200 kw (10,995hp) at 1150 rpm.[Superferry Engine Installation Completed,]

The Rochester ferry had engine issues, described in the Wikipedia article:

The vessel's 4 main engines built using an experimental design by MTU Friedrichshafen have proven to be troublesome, mostly since they were intended to be run for approximately 3 hours, before being idled - roughly the time-frame for what a one-way trip across Lake Ontario would take. However, in order to deliver the vessel from Perth, Australia to Rochester, New York, the engines were run continuously for many days, resulting in several problems with gaskets leaking and manifolds aging prematurely. Unfortunately the bankruptcy by CATS, the vessel's first owners, voided any warranty on the MTU engines. Rochester Ferry Company LLC, using its Australian-backed financing, came to an agreement with MTU in April 2005 which saw the ferry company pay $1.3 million (USD) to MTU in order to keep the vessel's propulsion systems under warranty.

It just didn't work out. The mayor of Rochester pulled the plug last year. The Wikipedia article details the long, sad story of this venture. In the end, the company went bankrupt and the ship was arrested to repay creditors. The problems had nothing to do with ridership—when service finally started after delays, the ship was quite popular.

Most readers may not care about engines or duty-free shopping. I was trying to compare the ferries. Both started off badly, for different reasons. The startup issues seem to be what killed the Rochester ferry, which I understand has found a new home in Europe.

I was curious to learn that the state of Hawaii has a mortgage on the Superferry. To me, a mortgage is a loan, so I was thinking that the ship might be arrested if it tried to flee the state. I have this fascination with ship arrests, you see (in a previous life I've even given a paper on marine credit at a conference). But this mortgage isn't a loan, it's security against payments to the state called for in the Operating Agreement between the state and the Superferry corporation. If for some reason you too are curious, the mortgage document is here.

Hawaii Superferry hasn't started yet. And when it does, its future is unpredictable. Unlike the Rochester-Ontario operation, Superferry will likely raise fares as much as it needs to (in fact, as much as it can). Like any other business, they'll run numbers to see how sensitive users are to fare changes, and set fares for the most profit. It's not a municipal service so it can do that.

This could make Superferry viable. At our expense, of course. Hawaii citizens have been sheep. When air fares were so very high we didn't see people marching in front of jet planes in protest. We just paid. Anyone can gouge us, and they know it. Gasoline, air fare, breakfast cereal, whatever. They ask, we pay. This will be the same.

A Wikipedia page is being constructed about the ferry in real time. I have a feeling that it will be a lot more complicated in the end than Rochester's page.

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