By SM Mohamed Idris | May 9, 08 4:54pm
Ferry services from Butterworth to Penang have been operating since 1894, making it the first and oldest passenger ferry in the country. It is undeniable that in recent times, the facilities made available for ferry passenger have seen its days, and may be unsuitable for further use. It remains a fact that since the collapse of the ferry terminal on the July 31, 1988, no major alterations with reference to the comfort of ferry users has been made.
Probes by CAP found that seats provided at ferry waiting areas at both terminals were badly damaged, believed not to be an act of vandalism but the deterioration of low quality, flimsy plastic chairs. It was also found that the number of seats made available were not sufficient, especially during peaks hours where ferry passengers were in large numbers. The crowd and congestion is almost always unsettling.
Ceiling fans were another issue at ferry terminals, where poor maintenance has contributed to badly functioning fans, some of which are hardly usable. The consequence this has on ferry users gets more aggravating in the heat of the day and during the warmer months.
It also came to the attention of CAP that ferries which usually require 15-20 minutes for each trip now took 25-30 minutes to cover that same distance. This delay causes passengers to be caught in crowds and congestion at ferry terminals.
Although Penang Port Commission (PPC) officials have attempted to upgrade the quality of ferry services with the purchase of two new ferries at the end of 2002, yet the aim of better services with a total of eight ferries was not quite achieved, as passengers still wait long for their ride.
This may be due to the fact that at peak hours, over 300 people utilise ferry services. When a ferry arrives at the terminal and gates are opened to allow passengers in, the situation gets uncontrollable and chaotic, with passengers pushing their way to board. The fright within them is that if this ferry is missed, the wait for the next one is over 30 minutes away.
The narrow exit passage of ferries also causes difficulties for passengers to leave ferries in an orderly manner. Such rush often leads to pushing and shoving, which could cause accidents and injuries. The inconsiderate attitude of attendants at the exit gates only make matters worse, as they roughly shut gates without taking into account the safety of passengers. This may be hazardous and deem ferry services unsuitable especially for pregnant women, the elderly and young children.
CAP has advised the relevant authorities to evaluate and discipline staff working on ferries and terminals, so as to make them follow rules and stick to work ethics. Besides complaints on such staffs which CAP has received, probes into the situation also revealed workers on ferries smoking amidst the crowd while on duty, when in fact smoking rooms are reserved especially for these reasons.
Certain staff were also found to be in untidy attire and incomplete uniforms, which not only pollutes their image as workers but also that of the PPC. Name badges were not worn by many, making it difficult to lodge complaints or take disciplinary action against them.
In addition to this, CAP found that when ferries operated in rainy weather, damage to roofs gave way, causing leaks and seats to be wet. In this not a clear indication of the poor maintenance of ferries?
The presence of rats on ferries is another disturbing concern, arising suspicion on the safety of life jackets. There is no guarantee that life jackets were not bitten, causing it to be damaged and making it unfunctional. These life jackets were also found to be packed into plastic bags. Is it not irrational, considering passengers will have to unwrap the packages before putting on jackets in the occurrence of an emergency?
PPC, which now operates eight ferries, has to devise a suitable plan in managing smaller and faster boats to carry passengers. Improvisations need to be made to ferry schedules and timetables, considering the entire year of 2006 saw 2,432,849 people utilising ferry services, and this figure is only expected to rise.
CAP also suggests that all existing ferries be used for purposes of vehicle transport, as these double deck vehicular ferries are designed such. On the other hand, speed boats such as the ones used in Pulau Langkawi, Pulau Pangkor, Sabah and Sarawak should be made available for passengers, who would then be able to travel faster and in comfort.
In November 2002, PPC had announced plans to introduce speed boats for passengers and use existing ferries to transport vehicles. Yet, even after six years of the announcement being made, the move has not been implemented nor has it been further commented about.
The cost of building Penang’s second bridge, which amounts to RM4.3 billion, should be channeled to restructure the ferry system. This system appears to still be relevant and important, and improvisations would make it an effective mechanism in overcoming traffic congestions on the Penang Bridge. With over 120,000 vehicles using the bridge each day and almost 19.8 billion in the year 2004, this problem needs an immediate solution.
CAP hopes PPC and the transport ministry will give this issue due consideration and regard to Penang ferries are not merely an inheritance of history, but also an important means of alternative transport for people of this state. The restructuring of this system has potential to influence the image of Penang’s public transport in the eyes of the nation.
The writer is president, Consumers Association of Penang.