Privatisation looms over harbour's iconic, but stricken, ferry fleet
Long before Danish architect Jorn Utzon first sketched the Sydney Opera House, or the much-loved Harbour Bridge rose above the city skyline, Sydneysiders had given their hearts to the city's distinctive green-and-cream ferries.
Less iconic perhaps than Hong Kong's Star Ferry or the Staten Island Ferry in New York, Sydney's creaky old boats have nevertheless played an important part in the life of the city - in their heyday (before the bridge opened in 1932), 46 million people travelled by ferry every year, and even today many commute to work by ferry.
But after 200 years of service from its ferries, the New South Wales state government is considering a proposal to privatise Sydney's accident-prone - and increasingly unreliable - service.
A commission of inquiry, led by barrister Bret Walker QC, last year found a service riddled with management problems, poor morale and funding shortfalls. The Walker Report recommended scrapping loss-making services and handing over their day-to-day operation to the private sector.
Two international transport consortiums are already circling the stricken fleet. Despite its faults, the prospect of selling Sydney Ferries to the highest bidder alarms many Sydneysiders.
'Plagued by mismanagement and systemic failure, it appears our ferries may grind to a rusty halt, while marinas for gin palaces and the monstrous leisure craft of the rich proliferate,' said Sydney doctor Raymond Seidler, a self-confessed fan of ferry travel.
'But surely in 2008 with every arterial road in Sydney gridlocked, any sensible government would revive a public transport alternative such as gliding to work on the most beautiful harbour in the world?'
Things reached crisis point on March 29 last year when a fast catamaran operated by Sydney Ferries collided with a wooden pleasure craft beneath Sydney Harbour Bridge. Four people were killed, including a 14-year-old girl, and two other passengers aboard the cruiser were seriously injured - one had her left leg amputated halfway down the shin.
'It was mayhem,' said Clive Marshall, who witnessed the accident from a passing ferry. 'The [pleasure] boat basically just disintegrated.' Bystanders dived into the water to rescue terrified survivors, some of them clinging to floating wreckage.
The accident made a deep impression on the people of Sydney, whose last great maritime disaster was in 1927, when an ocean-going steamer sank the Watsons Bay ferry, killing 40 passengers.
Last week, almost a year to the day after the disaster, the Office of Transport Safety Investigations handed down its findings on the accident, clearing Sydney Ferries of any responsibility for the tragedy - which it blamed on the skipper of the pleasure boat, the Merinda, for not displaying navigation lights.
The findings have been rejected by the families of those killed. They still hold Sydney Ferries at least partially responsible.
Robert Innes, the father of the 14-year-old girl who died, called the official report a travesty. 'Simply put, this ferry was on the wrong side of the harbour doing inappropriate speed,' he said.
A spot check by the Office of Transport Safety Investigations found that Sydney's ferry masters routinely flout speed restrictions in the harbour - and many do not comply with navigational markers when travelling west under the Harbour Bridge.
Such revelations put further pressure on the government to resolve Sydney's ferry problems before another tragedy occurs. But Morris Iemma, the premier of New South Wales, has yet to announce which, if any, of Mr Walker's recommendations he intends to implement. His reticence is understandable: a full overhaul of the service is tipped to cost many millions of dollars and take up to 10 years to complete.
Adding to the government's woes, irate ferry staff, represented by the powerful Maritime Union of Australia, have vowed to fight any reforms, especially privatisation, tooth and nail.
In 1789, Sydney's very first ferry, the Rose Hill Packet, took four days to travel from Sydney Cove and Parramatta. It was nicknamed 'The Lump' - which may seem a suitable metaphor for today's bumbling ferry bureaucracy.