The Penang government’s decision to take over the ferry service is a good move especially given the poor performance of Penang Port in running the service.
Penang Port could have done better. It’s a pity that it was unable or unwilling to revamp and expand the ferry service (including introducing new routes) for reasons best known to itself. There was no reason for such a poor service, evidence of which could be seen in the long queues of motorists on the island heading to the mainland at night. There was no shortage of demand, and yet the service was largely neglected.
That said, it is important to realise that the ferry service is a public service and the state government should not be thinking of making huge profits. It should be seen as public transport and as a form of energy conservation (saving the fuel of motorists and encouraging pedestrian traffic); so the ferry terminals should be linked to an efficient bus service and pedestrian walkways.
As a form of public transport, the Penang ferry service should not be expected to generate huge profits. If the service is expanded to achieve economies of scale, it is possible to reduce losses to a minimal level or even to post a small surplus while keeping fares low.
The Hong Kong Star Ferry service, operating a fleet of eight ferries with a fleet utilisation of 87.5 per cent in 2007, posted a loss before tax (franchised services only) of only HK$5.8 million (RM2.6 million). This is despite an 18 per cent drop in the number of passengers since the Central Ferry’s Pier was moved in 2006 from the Central docking space.
Compare this to the Penang ferry operations losses of RM21 million in 2008. Of course, the two services and conditions are not identical – but we can see that there is plenty of room for improvement in the Penang ferry service.
With the drop in fuel prices recently, there is no reason why the Penang ferry service cannot record a better financial performance. More routes must be included. Look at how Bangkok has made full use of water transport along the Chao Phraya river with its “river bus” service – an excellent form of public transport, apart from being a tourist attraction in itself.
The Penang ferry service needs to win back commuters who had turned to the bridge after the number of ferries in operation was almost halved in the late 1980s, following the closure of the old ferry terminals. This reduced frequency resulted in long queues at the ferry terminals and unpredictable services, prompting many motorists to switch to the bridge.
The way to reverse this is by drastically increasing the fleet size and the frequency of the ferries. This would inspire confidence in the reliability of the service just like in the old days until the mid-1980s.