We have a very good record of not missing crossings but sometime there are circumstances where this does happen but we are currently running at 99.5% of crossings completed in last 12 months.
We do sometimes run a few minutes late or slightly out of sequence this and this can be down to multiple reasons but includes:
- Shipping movements (see separate section)
- Excess traffic, especially at rush hours when a ferry leaves when it is full rather to an exact time schedule. This is considered to be preferable to leaving on time but not using the full capacity of a ferry.
- Cars breaking down on deck
- Waiting for or fast crossings with blue lights
- Lots of non-locals who rightly approach the ferry slower as they are not sure where to go
- Minor faults or breakdowns
- Tides and wind which vary the distance and time needed to cross
- Having to swap ferries around
We try to get back on schedule as soon as we can but it can sometimes take a while as where possible we try and keep traffic moving as a priority rather than getting back to exact schedule. We have very little contingency in the system and the crossing is so short that slight delays can seem very amplified.
We need to draw a balance between keeping people informed and not swamping them with minor details. There are no hard and fast rules and a judgement is made depending on traffic levels.
What we tweet:
- Ferries that leave early (usually due to medical emergencies / blue light crossings)
- Any ferry that comes out of service unexpectedly as it may result in delays (see also essential maintenance section)
- Delays to customers (meaning you won’t get on the next ferry as too many cars in front of you)
- Unexpected traffic levels (for example police diverting traffic to us rather than via Bridge)
- Other things that may cause delays or inconvenience customers
What we don’t tweet:
- Minor delays with ferries leaving, especially as the time might be made up on the crossing.
- Swapping of ferries (needs to be done for maintenance or tides/wind) unless we reduce the service for more than a few minutes.
- Scheduled changes to number of ferries running (e.g. when we go from 1 overnight to 3 on a week morning)
We do not actually operate a true "first on - last off" system but we appreciate that it seems that way sometimes! There are a number of factors and reasons and they are detailed below. We believe we load in the most efficient way possible to get the maximum number of crossings per hour, although we are always ready to listen to suggestions. Sometimes you appear to 'gain' and sometimes you appear to 'lose' but overall we get people across in the quickest average time.
From Torpoint, traffic arrives on the up-river side of the Ferry so we empty that side first ready to start loading as soon as possible and while the traffic still getting off (heading downriver) the down-river side is then loaded last. Once we get to the Devonport side traffic ready to board is now waiting on the down-river side so we need to unload the down-river side first which are the people who were last to board and the first to board unfortunately tend to be last off.
The only ways to avoid this happening are:
a) At some point in the road system (on one or other side of the river) we would need to cross traffic over with a very complex lights system, fly-over or tunnel none of which we have.
b) If we emptied the ferry before loading the next set of cars we could get closer to a “first on/first off” system but if we did that it would take longer and we would have to reduce to three trips an hour instead of the current four. This would mean waiting longer in the lanes and resulting in bigger queues and big delays especially at peak times (a total of 9 trips an hour instead of 12).
Why doesn't someone 'pull up' all the cars so there are smaller gaps in between them and therefore making room for more cars?
This does work and but it is quite labour intensive and would add a lot to the costs of running the ferry having extra staff made available for this. Equally whilst sometimes it would get more vehicles on, a lot of the time it would just move space around , this is as even after moving up everyone in a row there might still only be space for ¾ of a car which doesn’t help. We use this more often during refit time when we only have the two ferries available in peak rush hours where it can make a big difference but this is dependent on staff availability.
They do not actually get priority but as they are currently allowed to use the bus lane it does mean they will get the next available ferry.
Equally, when boarding they should be following the directions of the loader with regards to where the park. We do currently allow them to follow the first lane off as it makes the most sense on many levels however we are currently revaluating to find the safest and most efficient way of loading them and trialing some methods.
Use of this lane is very restricted and usually this is just buses (see separate section for full details), blue light vehicles and motorbikes (see separate section for full details). We do have a small number of others that have the right to use it, usually for medically related reasons. Funeral and wedding cars can sometimes get access if checked and booked in advance.They do not actually get priority but as they are currently allowed to use the bus lane it does mean they will get the next available ferry.
However there are other vehicles that you might see in the priority lane examples of these include:
- Our staff or contractors who are just moving around the site (The parking space for our tractor is just past the end of the priority lane for example).
- Deliveries for our office, workshops and stores that are going into our yard.
- Extra-large vehicles who have requested to use our lanes to “loop around” in order to leave Torpoint rather than risk blocking roads trying to do a 3 point turn.
- Sometimes we have extra vehicles that we can’t squeeze on the ferry that has just left so rather than getting them to reverse to the next ferry we send them back around the lanes but use the priority lane to ensure they don’t lose their place at the front of the queue. (This should only ever be done under our instruction)
Why do we not start loading at the front of lane one, fill it, load lane two, fill it and so on is often asked and there are a number of key factors that we take into account when loading. There are many others but these are the main ones.
Wider vehicles – Lanes 3 and 4 are wider than the other lanes so we direct bigger traffic down those lanes.
Canopy – to avoid high vehicles or vehicles with long aerials.
Moveable part of prow – to avoid lots of heavy vehicles due to weight issues.
High vehicles – position so they don’t block sightlines for the person controlling the Ferry.
Weight distribution -need to try and spread the load in all directions.
Narrow prows – changes order slightly to keep traffic loading and unloading apart as much as possible.
Maximising space – getting the highest number of vehicles possible on a load.
Not knowing what is coming next – we need to load assuming we are going to get a full load of the most awkward shaped vehicles possible as the loader can’t see what is coming next other than the first few vehicles.
We get a lot of questions about buses and whether or why they should or shouldn't use the ferry. Both Cornwall Council and Plymouth City Council are committed to a public transport network and as such so are we.
The only way this will change is if we get a legal or political steer to change, staff whether management or front line staff do not have the control in this instance. We appreciate that having two bus companies running trips appears wasteful but it is an open market that we have no influence in.
We only allow a maximum of two “In-service” buses via the bus lane per trip unless there is space that would not be otherwise taken up in which case we will take more to clear the lanes.
Out of service buses, holiday tours, Raleigh coaches and other buses and coaches are able to queue in the lanes the same as any other traffic. For this reason you may well see more buses on board than just the in-service buses that use the bus lane, but they will have queued up with the other traffic.
This is usually so we can clear a lane to let more people join from queuing up the road this especially happens when busy.
Sometimes it is to make sure that people don’t try and sneak in at the back of a half emptied lane and jump the queues. Occasionally maintenance staff or vehicles need access and we move vehicles to cause the least amount of disruption.
Why do you say that there are no delays when I'm sat in the lanes waiting for a ferry and there are none on the beach?
We use similar terminology to train companies, if you arrive early for a train and have to wait, it doesn’t mean the train is delayed. If we are running to timetable (or as close as reasonably possible) and clearing the lanes each trip then there is no delay. If there are so many people in front of you that you wouldn’t catch the first available ferry or the timetabled ferry is significantly late running then we start talking about delays.
We go a speed to try and keep to the timetable but the speed is affected by many factors.
Timetable isn’t based on absolute fastest crossing times as they can be reduced by weather conditions especially wind, tides, other vessels, size of load but rather a time that should be achievable in most conditions. This also allows for a very small amount of contingency to help catch up lost time or when taking blue lights.
Very few vehicles get priority generally it is just buses, emergency services and some other regular ones that are usually related to difficult medical conditions.
We also allow hearses and wedding cars if requested in advance and there is the possibility of missing the ferry otherwise.
For safe and efficient loading, motorcycles and bicycles are given a concession whereby they do not queue with other traffic, but queue in the priority vehicle lane, although they are not classed as priority vehicles such as buses and ambulances.
To access the ferries during the Tower manning hours of 06:00 to 21:30, motorcycles and bicycles must queue in the priority lanes at Torpoint (lane 7) and Devonport (lane 11), and wait to be called forward to the ferry slipways with a green light. To access the ferries when the Towers are not manned (overnight between 21:30 and 06:00) motorcycles and bicycles must use the open traffic lane (green light at lane entry and exit). In both cases, once at the slipway, motorcycles and bicycles must follow the instruction of ferry crew for loading.
We have to obey the Queen's Harbour Master, the official responsible for the safety of shipping using the Port of Plymouth, and we are often instructed to stop and wait for other shipping to pass over the ferry chain tracks.
This is particularly common for Navy vessels of UK or other countries that are using the dockyard (they also have big guns so we don’t argue with them!). These normally only cause minor delays but sometimes multiple movements in a short space of time or a very slow vessel can throw the timetable out for a fair while afterwards.
There are two main reasons for this...
We work closely with the Queens Harbour Master and they try as often as possible to wait until last minute before stopping us crossing and please note that they depend on information relayed from the ship, pilot and tugs. This is great for us, and more importantly, you the passengers, as it minimises delays, keeps us closer to timetable and reduces the number of lost crossings. Sometimes however we have raised the prow and started moving before we have to stop which isn’t ideal but it is far outweighed by the all the other times it works in our favour.
There are times when we know we can’t cross but still pull away on scheduled time so that we are ready to cross as soon as possible so the people on that ferry have the absolute minimal delay. This is usually combined with the next ferry arriving very soon that needs the roads clear to unload. It is a juggling act with many pieces of information and decisions to make but we try to ensure that people catch the ferry they turned up for and have minimal delays.
During busy rush hours it is important to keep a constant traffic flow to the ferries, so as to keep on time.
7 minutes to load and unload approximately 70 vehicles. Any delay will have a knock on effect to the following departure time for that ferry. Any vehicle waiting at Tamar St will be given time to drop off passengers once the ferry has loaded.
At other times the ferry may be full, has requested no more bikes, or been given clearance to depart and has begun the departure routine.
On these occasions no last minute motorbikes will be taken aboard. Please allow sufficient time when planning your journey.
We have a very close working relationship with the emergency services.
We recognise the part we play in bringing help to the community of Torpoint and surrounding area. When you see an emergency vehicle about to board the ferry, we ask that you start your engine and be prepared to move as soon as the lights change. The ferry has to wait until all vehicles have disembarked before leaving. We will endeavour to load as many vehicles as possible while this takes place without delaying departure.
Vending/Fruit machines are not owned or run by Torpoint Ferry and we don't have access to them for breakdowns or refunds.
The concession space on the ferry is let on a long term ‘lease’ which allows for a variety of uses; we can’t give any more details here due to commercial confidentiality. The machines inevitably change depending on customer demand and use, whilst we can forward suggestions we don’t have the right to tell them how to run their business.
Selling in the lanes or via the old shops and cafes was viable with the old ferries which were slower and took far less traffic. These days with a 10 min service at peak times there is not enough traffic static for long enough to warrant any form of sales. The occasional times when we do have long queues are not often enough or predictable enough to make it viable.
You will often see a Tweet and Facebook message saying a ferry has been delayed for a short time due to essential maintenance. The ferries are complex machines and require regular or planned maintenance to keep the machinery operating correctly, an example being an oil change for a diesel. This type of maintenance is normally completed with no disruption to the service
The ferries can also suffer from defects or ‘unplanned maintenance’ which can occur at any time and in the worst case means that the ferry has to be taken out of service for repair. There are over 1000 sensors per ferry and constant visual checks to ensure that any problem is flagged up as soon as possible
Everything is done to minimise any out of service time, but despite a certain amount of redundancy in terms of equipment and systems there are times when there is no choice – it is for these events that the term ‘Essential Maintenance’ is used.
Whilst most planned maintenance can be achieved without disrupting the ferry service there are certain major evolutions such as the change of one of the main chains that due to the time, manpower or tidal restrictions can only be done by taking a ferry out of service.
A decision to do this is not taken likely and all is done to give prior notice and keep the disruption to the service to a minimum.
Whilst in an ideal world it would be great to have the 3rd Ferry on standby to go into service at a moment's notice this is not viable for various reasons.
The ferries take about 20mins to get staff on board and go through all the start-up procedures and checks; they are closer to a commercial aircraft than your car in complexity.
There isn’t normally enough ‘spare’ staff on duty, whilst we do have reliefs and we do multi-train some staff it would add huge costs to staff a non-running ferry for the occasions we need extra. There are also limitations on the hours that crews can work due to the Working Time Directive.
Maintenance is often being done on the 3rd Ferry which may mean it has parts stripped down so it is not able to run anyway. Similarly during their downtime they may be taking on fuel/water or undergoing inspections and testing by statutory bodies such as MCA or Lloyds.
That said if the problem is going to take a long time to solve it gives us more time to bring in staff (if available) or reallocate to either swap ferries or bring another into service and we do try and do that. Queues and delays are frustrating for customers which we obviously want to avoid, but they also cause extra pressure on ferries and staff which again we also want to avoid. We therefore always try and alleviate these issues but bringing the 3rd Ferry into service is unfortunately often not a viable solution.