Commuters using the ferry service in Penang are suffering interminable delays following a reduction in the number of ferries in service.
The Penang state government has offered to take over the privatised ferry service and increase the number of ferries. But it has reportedly not heard anything since meetings were held.
The question is, who was in those meetings and were all the relevant parties represented?
There are three parties that have to be involved in any takeover plan:
- the Penang state government, which wants to take over the operations;
- the privatised Penang Port Sdn Bhd (PPSB), which operates the port, including the ferry service, and
- the regulator, Penang Port Commission, which comes under the federal Ministry of Transport
What exactly is holding up the takeover of the ferry service while daily commuters continue to wait in misery at the ferry terminals?
From what I understand, each time a ferry makes a trip, PPSB loses about RM600. It may be losing some RM20m-25m a year from the ferry operations.
So to cut losses, PPSB has simply reduced the number of ferries to a skeleton service. From a dozen ferries in operation in the heyday of the ferry service in the 1970s and for much of the 1980s, today only four ferries out of a fleet of six are in operation during peak hours.
And after 10pm daily, only one ferry is in service and after 1am, none – even during weekends and public holidays! (Part of the problem is there are fewer cars heading to the island at night while more cars are heading to Butterworth, but ferry fares are only collected, on the mainland, from commuters heading to the island. No fare is collected on the island from commuters heading to the mainland, as that is the same system adopted for the two Penang bridges.)
This cutback in the ferry service is one reason why the privatisation of Penang port should never have taken place.
So now, given that PPSB is losing money from the ferries, I doubt if the firm, focused on maximising profits, would have much objection to the Penang state government taking over the ferry service. So who or what is delaying the takeover?
In the past, before the privatisation of Penang port, it was not a problem for the ferries to make a loss. Penang port would simply cross-subsidise the ferry service using funds from the profitable port operations. But with the ill-advised privatisation of the port to Al-Bukhary’s Sea Terminal – despite the Penang state government’s willingness to take over the port – that cross-subsidy with the ferries is no longer there as the profit maximisation motive is firmly in place.
The loss-making ferry service is simply being run down while commuters suffer.
But there is no reason why the ferry service cannot break-even if it is run efficiently, even based on existing fares.
For one thing, I understand each ferry is staffed by a crew of nine and this is probably due to harbour regulations (perhaps for safety reasons or to assist in any emergency?).
This headcount can possibly be reduced to five. During docking, embarkation, and disembarkation, personnel inside the terminals can board the ferries and assist in guiding vehicles in and out. The headcount can be reduced gradually upon staff retirement without any need for retrenchments.
To deal with emergencies, a Penang port rapid response team equipped with a speedboat can be put on standby at the terminals. After all, it would take less than five minutes for a rescue team on a speedboat to reach any ferry in distress.
Once operational losses are minimised, the ferry service can be expanded in creative ways to service other destinations on Province Wellesley and Penang Island, not just George Town and Bagan Dalam in Butterworth.
New ferry terminals can be set up in Tanjung Bungah, Bagan Ajam, Prai and Bayan Lepas to ease congestion on existing highways and roads. These terminals should be integrated with the Rapid Penang bus service and other public transport modes. i doubt if the Penang transport masterplan has fully explored the full potential of the ferry service.
With more ferries, economies of scale can be realised, and losses reduced or eliminated.
In any case, with sustainable public transport, it is not essential for it to make a profit as it is an essential public service, which should be subsidised if necessary for the common good (less vehicular pollution, less time wasted waiting at ferry terminals, less traffic congestion, and a smoother overall integration with other modes of public transport).
The medium-term plan should be for the Penang bridges, old and new, to be handed over to the Penang state government. The tolls from the bridge can then serve as a form of congestion charge, which can be used to finance public transport infrastructure and operations in the state under the Penang state government.
This sort of sustainable public transport coordination should come under a new Penang Sustainable Transport Commisson, whose responsibilities should include getting the ferry service, KTM and Rapid Penang to work together and integrate the commuting experience.
This is not something new; we had something like this in the past. You could hop on a bus or tram to Weld Quay, book your train ticket there, board the ferry at the then railway jetty (located near the present ferry terminal), and the old ferry would then chug across the channel to the Prai harbour, where you would then transfer to a train at the Prai Junction Railway Station. (The Butterworth Railway Station was only opened in 1967.)
So we need to get back to such integration now. KTM should work with Rapid Penang and the ferry service to allow smaller feeder buses from the KTM commuter and electric trains to transfer passengers from the mainland to the island and vice versa. The new Rapid Penang bus terminals outside the ferry terminals offer an excellent opportunity for this to happen.
It can be done if we are not obsessed with making huge profits or building expensive infrastructure (e.g. a tunnel). Remember the concept of public service? Not everything should be measured in terms of ringgit and sen.
So let the Penang state government take over the ferry service without any further delay.