Prasarana must quickly increase the number of ferries in operation after the disastrous experience under the privatised Penang Port Sdn Bhd.
This is one the major problems with privatisation: private owners tend to cherry-pick profitable operations (in this case, the port operations) and let loss-making services (like the ferry service, which is an essential public service) deteriorate or discard them altogether.
After the takeover by RapidPenang on 1 July 2017, it is not enough for the new federal owners to maintain the number of ferries and number of trips in the existing service, which had been drastically slashed to just a skeleton service.
At present only four ferries are running during peak hours, which is totally inadequate. At night, the situation is worse, with only one ferry in operation. After 9.30pm or so, ferries to George Town arrive only only once an hour until about 1am, after which there are no more ferries. I wonder if federal and state leaders are even aware of this deplorable state of affairs. It is a far cry from the dozen or so ferries in service in the 1970s and 1980s.
The present skeleton service is simply unacceptable to long-suffering commuters. Many have just given up on the ferry service. Butterworth-George Town (and areas further north) cross-channel motorists have to burn unnecessary fuel by taking, a much longer route to use the bridge, and in doing so they clog up the Jelutong Expressway. If we had a better, expanded ferry service serving more routes, we wouldn’t even have to hear all that talk over a new tunnel or a third bridge.
RapidPenang now has a good opportunity to introduce an integrated ticketing system for cross-channel passengers, while synchronising ferry arrivals and departures with the schedules of the KTM electric and commuter trains and RapidPenang buses.
It is disappointing that the ferry service was not handed to the Penang state government to manage.
But in the medium term, with a more enlightened federal government in Putrajaya one day, public transport across the nation should be decentralised to the state and local levels. RapidPenang should then be handed over to the state government. So too the two Penang bridges.
In a state like Penang, a Penang Sustainable Mobility Commission should be set up to plan, regulate and look into the financing of the various public transport services in the state. The tolls from the Penang Bridge could be used to subsidise public transport (including the ferries) infrastructure and operations in the state.
So the handover of the ferries to RapidPenang should be seen as the first part of this longer-term decentralisation move.