Penang gov’t right in revamping ferry service


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.

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james lee
james lee
12 Jun 2009 8.28pm

Penang should have only the ferry service. The Penang bridge and bridges spoilt Penang Island. Otherwise, with only the ferry service of the sixties and seventies, Penang Island would be a paradise Island, exotic, natural and idyllic. Development should be only in the mainland. Gone forever, Penang, an island in the sun! How sad!

12 Jun 2009 10.57am

Anil and everyone here, do you have facebook? Check out Farish A Noor’s Photos – Penang Postcards: For the Penang Heritage City Project. It’s his collection of postcards of photopaintings of Penang, possibly 19th century. Take the journey down the past and marvel at the change; compare the images of the past with the rape of the island today. When I first read Cecil Rajendra’s “Pearl of the Orient” in the NST (those good old days when NST was doing its job as a paper of public interest), I had not explored Penang. Only 10 years later, during my time… Read more »

12 Jun 2009 9.21am

Don’t try and do tough business modeling when you have not done one. It really make you look bad. The Star Ferry Service in Hong Kong is purely passenger – it does not carry vehicle. As a vehicle transport, the Penang service is likely not economical no matter what the efficiency is. Switching to entirely passenger service is also probably not necessary although it makes more economic sense. Also having services to other parts of Penang Island is probably also limited – maybe to Gurney Drive only. Other places probably don’t have the economics for it. An alternative to develop… Read more »

11 Jun 2009 8.20pm

Once a while when returning to Kuala Lumpur, I will take the ferry because of the fond nostalgia. I am a Penangite, residing in KL. By taking the ferry to the mainland it gives me the pleasure to enjoy the smell of the sea breeze and the joy of climbing up and down the upper deck (which we used to do in our younger days)just to take a leak. I am in my late fifties now and I have a lot of fond memories to tell my children about this ferry service which meant so much to all Penangites. I… Read more »

11 Jun 2009 12.04pm

With the constant “Grid-Lock” of the Traffic jams at the Penang Bridge, this is definitely the better alternative with the Historic Ferry Infrastructure already in place.

If the Hong Kong & many other Ferry service models can succeed profitably, why not LEARN from the proven success models.

It is also a Heritage & Tourist attraction – a nostalgic experience for the visitor to the “Pearl of the Orient”.

11 Jun 2009 10.42am

LGE just take it over. It is such a simple operation, learn from HK. Maintain ferry well, improve efficiency, whip those who are sitting on their butt and shaking legs by having many meetings and nothing done and no decision made. Politicians who only care about their own pocket and have no VISION SHOULD BE SACKED. Turn this project into heritage and tourist attraction, clean up the ferries etc etc…………sigh. Serve the people and community…..and ppl in Pg.

11 Jun 2009 9.56am

Ref: tuah on June 10th, 2009 at 11.48pm

I did not realised PPC chairperson is a lady and from MCA. No wonder ( I mean the MCA part and not the gender). I hope there is no PKFZ type scandal with Penang Port. And of course with a politico at the top, the ferry service is guaranteed to loose money. I also wonder why that position was given to MCA and not Gerakan.

11 Jun 2009 9.21am

All the fares are collected on the Butterworth side. Many of the cars are coming in by bridge and leaving by ferry. So that is a loss for the ferry. I propose the following: a) Subsidy from Penang bridge based a balanced traffic flow – say 1000 cars from Penang to Butterworh and only 500 cars from Butterworth to Penang. b) Cuopons issued from Butterworth must be shown at the Penang side to board ferry. Vehicles without the coupons to pay for Penang – Butterworth trip c) collect fares from both sides. d) Make Penang Bridge run the Ferry Services… Read more »

johanssm / khun Pana
johanssm / khun Pana
11 Jun 2009 3.49am

I believe Penang’s state government is right.
Let Lim G.E have the opportunity to do it and presents his plannings.

11 Jun 2009 2.19am

In fact, ferry service is more fuel efficint other modes of transport. With proper IE capacity study, the capacity of existing fleet can be improved at 30% easily

Example, one of the main bottleneck is ferry’s loading bay limited to one car entry each time. With modifications to loading bay, the loading/unloading turnaround time shall be reduced to a half.

LGE, you do not need to purchase new ferries to increase capacity, use our brainpower first before talking about adding new ferries as BN politicians.

11 Jun 2009 2.18am

Way to go LGE!

Let’s not have all these sacred cows losing zillions when clearly there are avenues to make them profitable. If the ferry services are economical and can handle a significant traffic volume, perhaps the 2nd link may be unnecessary?

11 Jun 2009 1.20am

hi anil, SAY NO TO Cyanide !!! I m sorry to use ur blog to tell tis story cos there has been no coverage by the mainstream media on tis issue that was affecting the health of Bukit Koman’s residents. I sincerely hope u can help us to spread tis. Raub villagers protest potential cyanide use Soon Li Tsin | Jan 24, 07 3:56pm Some 3,000 residents of Kampung Baru Bukit Koman in Raub, Pahang, are questioning a state agency’s decision to allow the use of cyanide in a gold-mining operation in Bukit Koman. Chemical Dangers : – Cyanide is… Read more »

Jims Penang
Jims Penang
11 Jun 2009 12.35am

Do the maths! RM 21,000,000 comes to RM 57,500 per day for 365 days of operation.

Is there so many factor to cause the loss to become so large?
How many employees for the ferry service?
How much is the cost per ferry trip?
How much is the wear and tear costs?
How is going into some official’s pocket?

Ask PwC come and audit better la.

11 Jun 2009 12.33am

the penang ferry service is an icon to the island and mainland. what PR need is to revamp the people inside there. we don’t need to see big profit from the services but enough to cover the operation. Anyway, this is a public services and it should be manage by the state government. If HK can turn their ferry services into a tourist attraction and one of the backbone of their transportation line, I don’t see why Penang can’t do so. all we need is creative people, business minded people, real working people not lazy people with lame and ‘tidak… Read more »

11 Jun 2009 12.24am

Anil, how do I pass the message to them that it would be nice to repaint the ferries back to its original colour of terracotta-like colour, nostalgic lah.

11 Jun 2009 12.22am

I fully support CM Lim Guan Eng is making this decision.

The reason why the ferry had been making huge losses is simply because they work at their own pace of 25 minutes every ferry when the demand is 10 minutes for every ferry, causing long jams.

Poor maintenance schedule and lazy workers are the other reasons. You can see how lazy these people are when seated in the car for an hour watching them work.

11 Jun 2009 12.07am

Agree with all the suggestions:
– Larger fleet size.
– More frequency.
– More routes (can be later, b’cos need huge investments in new terminals and access infrastructure).
– Connecting land transport, eg buses, trains, etc. Yes, trains, at least on the mainland side. Operate them like KL Komuter, but with better quality management. Perhaps, the state government can similarly ask for the rights to run these train services in the Seberang Prai.

10 Jun 2009 11.48pm

The real problem with the ferry service lies in two areas

1. political appointee who is parked there to pasture. He does not know anything about ferry service and too lazy to learn. All he care is about his perks

2. civil service types who run the operation. They don care two hoots about customers. The less customers the better, less work for them.

Any wonder the ferry service loose money year in and year out.

Sack all these people and start again….

10 Jun 2009 11.15pm

I trust the Penang government has the capability to manage ferry service. Given clean balance sheet, this ferry service may turn into profit. A source of income for the state and prove that many government entity are profitable if run properly. Let’s prove it, PAKATAN!

10 Jun 2009 10.46pm

Hi anil,

we are having a elawyer-Exabytes Bloggers & Law Forum 2009 in penang.

I hope you can help to infrom your reader and hope to see you there.

10 Jun 2009 10.35pm

The Federal Government appear to be stupid to Corperatise the Penang Port service to a private identity by the name of Penang Port Sdn Bhd. What are the terms of the agreement in the privatisation? They should be made public!!! How can Penang Port Sdn Bhd pick and choose to dump the ferry Services, when the contract specifically mentioned The Harbour and Ferry Services to be privatised to Penang Port Sdn Bhd in total. Rightly, if Penang Port Sdn Bhd is not capable of seeing the Burden of the Penang Ferry Services PPSB should also return the Harbour Services to… Read more »

10 Jun 2009 9.55pm

This move by the state government is a step in the right direction. There is a serious need to improve the public transport system in the Penang island.

The demand for the ferry services is there as is evidenced by the daily congestion on the Penang bridge.

The Penang Port Commission should be helmed by a professional capable of doing the job and not by a political appointee as is presently the case.