First Ferry's 6.5pc fare rise angers islanders

PUBLISHED : Friday, 17 February, 2006, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 17 February, 2006, 12:00am

Lantau group and lawmaker vow action, but transport chief says the company has exhausted all means of cutting a $12 million deficit

Lantau residents and a lawmaker vowed to take action yesterday after learning the transport commissioner is allowing First Ferry to raise its fares by 6.5 per cent.

They expressed anger at the 'quiet' decision even though the increase is less than the 9.4 per cent the ferry operator had sought.

But commissioner Alan Wong Chi-kong said the increase was needed because First Ferry had exhausted all other means of cutting its $12 million deficit and would still lose $4 million to $5 million a year.

Travellers on the five routes linking Central and Tsim Sha Tsui to Cheung Chau, Peng Chau and Mui Wo will pay an extra 80 cents to $1.20 a trip on normal days and an extra $1 on Sundays and public holidays after the new fares take effect next Tuesday. A monthly pass will cost $452, up from $420.

Lantau Island Residents Association chairman Chu Cheung-hey said the rise was unacceptable.

'Why do they consult us at all if they are going to do it anyway? They made the decision quietly and gave us such short notice. We will put up a rally tomorrow,' he said.

Legislator Wong Kwok-hing, who leads a Legislative Council taskforce looking at ferry fares, said he would oppose the decision at the group's next meeting. 'The rise, despite being reduced, is still way higher than the inflation rate and salary rises,' he said.

'It will not only add to the burden of islanders, but will also strike hard at tourism and [thus] dampen business prospects on the islands.'

Mr Wong said it was a big mistake for the government to approve the application before First Ferry had exhausted all means of reducing its deficit.

'They should rely more on other sources of income such as rent and advertisements,' he said.

But the commissioner said First Ferry had already cut wages, moved its repair unit to the mainland and was renting its properties to businesses and for ads.

The government had also tried to help by taking over major repair work on the piers at an annual cost of $17 million and by waiving fuel tax for the ferries.

'Over the past five years, [First Ferry] has accumulated a deficit of $12 million despite all the cost-saving measures taken,' the commissioner said. 'Our greatest concern is to ensure that they can continue to provide services to the islanders, and in an effective way.'

He said he had expected strong reaction from the community. But he stressed that more than 60 per cent of the 30,000 affected commuters would pay less than $1 more and First Ferry would continue to lose money amid soaring fuel prices and declining patronage.

First Ferry director John Hui said he did not expect any more significant fare rises in the near future.

The company would apply to introduce more group tickets to provide discounts of up to 20 per cent to visitors in groups.

Four green minibus lines have also been allowed to increase fares, by 20 cents a trip. The applications of 76 others are being considered.