The Torpoint Ferry forms a vital link across the Tamar (known at the ferry location as the Hamoaze) between the town of Torpoint in Cornwall, and the city of Plymouth in Devon.
The crossing is owned by two local authorities, Cornwall Council and Plymouth City Council, and its operation is governed by the Tamar Bridge and Torpoint Ferry Joint Committee, constituted by elected councillors from the two authorities.
The ferry is operated in conjunction with the Tamar Bridge as a single business unit under powers derived from primary legislation – the Tamar Bridge Acts, and operation, maintenance and improvement of both crossings is funded solely from combined toll income. The three chain ferries provide service 24 hrs a day, 365 days a year and offer a 10 minute frequency at peak times. The Torpoint Ferry crossing is the busiest estuarial vehicular ferry crossing in the United Kingdom, and the three vessels together carry nearly two million vehicles per annum.
The crossing has a long and fascinating history, and there has been a formal ferry service at Torpoint since 1791, after Reginald Pole Carew and the Earl of Mont Edgcumbe received Parliamentary approval for the first commercial service.
Until 1831 this was provided by traditional vessels powered by sail and oars, and subsequently steam, albeit somewhat intermittently and unpredictably due to a host of operational and reliability problems, mostly due to effects of wind and tide.
A major turning point came in 1831, when the crossing was transformed by one of the foremost civil engineers of the time, James Meadows Rendel, with the introduction of the first Torpoint chain ferry or ‘floating bridge’, using a self-propelled vessel using a pair of vertical chain wheels in the middle of the vessel to pull on fixed chains connected between the river banks and transport. This solution proved to be very efficient and reliable, and the same principles are retained to this day. The principle was developed in subsequent generations of Torpoint chain ferries, each generation impressively serving for approximately forty years, but still powered by steam until 1960.
The service was privately owned and operated until 1922, when Cornwall County Council acquired the enterprise using powers derived from the Ferries (Acquisition by Local Authorities) Act 1919, and since that time has been in public ownership. Subsequently the construction of the Tamar Bridge between 1959 and 1961 became the catalyst for the current joint ownership arrangements.
The fourth generation ferries were built in 1961 (Lynher and Tamar) and 1969 (Plym) and served with remarkable reliability. Under the direction of the previous manager, Mr. Roger Warren, the vessels were effectively reconstructed when they underwent major improvement and enlargement in 1986, when engines were replaced and hulls extended, providing a much needed 60% increase in capacity and a new lease of life. By 1997, however, the vessels were reaching the ends of their working lives, with ageing steelwork, and there were increasing concerns regarding capacity, reliability and safety.
The New Ferries
In 1998, marine consultants Burness Corlett and Partners were appointed, and preliminary designs were drawn up. The consultants' brief was to design vessels using contemporary construction and systems which were faster, larger, safer and quieter, and which offered improved access for all users. At the same time the design needed to minimise environmental impact, and maintain the fundamental efficiency of the chain ferry principle. Needless to say, the new vessels would also be expected to match or exceed the impressive reliability record set by their predecessors.
Based on the same basic design, a range of three ferry sizes was considered, with nominal capacities of 60, 73 and 85 cars. In 2000, the consultant Atkins was appointed to undertake environmental impact assessments of the different ferry sizes, and use those assessments in a comprehensive public consultation process involving user questionnaires, exhibitions and public meetings. The public consultation process reinforced management views that the middle size offered a sensible balance between improved capacity and shorter journey time on the one hand and the effects of larger loads of disembarking vehicles affecting air quality and congestion on the local road network.
In July 2001, following the consultation process, the Joint Committee endorsed the preferred design for ferries with a nominal capacity of 73 cars, allowing detailed design to proceed. In July 2003, following detailed design and a European Union tendering exercise, the construction contract was awarded to Ferguson Shipbuilders Ltd, using their facilities on the Clyde near Glasgow.
To minimise the effects of the transition to new ferries but at the same time facilitate the much needed refurbishment of the ferry slipways, the delivery programme was phased such that the first two new ferries would be delivered initially, and then after approximately six months following the completion of slipway improvement works, the third ferry would be delivered.
The main features of this latest generation of ferries are:
- Wider vehicle lanes facilitating loading and emergency evacuation
- Improved fire detection and extinguishing systems
- Carrying capacity increased by 50%
- Increased redundancy in power and drive systems to maximise service delivery and optimise emergency response
- Improved prow design offering easier access for all users
- Modern power and control systems with improved diagnostics for planned maintenance
- Provision of CCTV cameras offering improved security and safety
- Improved environmental control of emissions and waste
- Increased crossing speed
- Reduced noise levels for passengers and staff
The transition to new ferries offered an opportunity to programme some long overdue major refurbishment work on the ferry slipways, the full areas of which are seldom accessible as they extend to the level of the lowest tides and are in continuous use by the ferry operation.
Two new ferries, each with 50% increased capacity, together offer an hourly carrying capacity matching the combined capacity of all three of their predecessors. Therefore by undertaking the work in three stages, operation two new ferries and working on the remaining unused pair of slipways, the refurbishment could be undertaken while at the same time minimising disruption to the travelling public.
The works were designed, managed and supervised by Plymouth City Council with assistance from specialist consultants, Beckett Rankine Partnership. The works were undertaken by Edmund Nuttall Ltd.
The works needed were essentially:
- The regulation and reduction of slipway gradients to improve berthing and loading
- Improved abrasion resistance
- Consistent surface texture offering good grip for all users
- Installation of a hard smooth toe at the bottom edge of the slipways to ensure the smooth running of chains at low tide
As set out in the primary legislation, the operation, maintenance and improvement of the bridge and ferry must be funded solely from their combined toll income.
The Joint Committee’s reserves had, by 2001, been heavily depleted by the expenditure of some £35 million on the essential Strengthening and Widening Project to rejuvenate the Tamar Bridge. The cost of the Ferry Replacement Project has therefore been met for the most part by borrowing, which will be funded by future toll income.
The project cost including construction of the new ferries. Slipway refurbishment and associated consultants fees totalled approximately £20 million.
Facts and Figures
The ferries each have three diesel generators, used to produce electric power for the two drive motors which each turn one of the two chainwheels. One generator can produce enough power for normal operation but a second generator might be used to provide extra power for bad weather or fast emergency crossings. The third generator is a spare to allow for planned or unplanned maintenance.
The chainwheels are nearly 2 metres in diameter and have pockets on their circumference which grip the chain links and pull on the chains. The chainwheels can be driven independently, allowing the vessel alignment to be adjusted if necessary. The chains run through chutes within each side of the hull, and the chain chutes have guide wheels and are lined with special materials to handle wear and tear and keep noise under control.
Each chainwheel drive has a hydraulic disc brake 1.6 metres ion diameter to stop the ferry.
The crossing distance is up to 650 metres depending on tide state, and while routine crossings take about 6 minutes, the ferries can cross in 3-4 minutes in an emergency.
Some ferry statistics and details:
- Length overall 73.00 metres
- Width (beam) 20.35 metres
- Draught (max) 1.60 metres
- Displacement 750 tonnes
- Engines (3 no.) Volvo Penta D12, 12 litres, 310 kW
- Alternators (3 no.) AVK 368 kVA
- Drive Motors (2 no.) Schorch 250 kW
- Cost £4.9 million each