Island residents to face slower, less frequent ferries

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 23 February, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 23 February, 2008, 12:00am

Residents of Peng Chau and Lamma islands will have to live with slower, less frequent ferry services for the next three years, but the government has promised improvements from then on.

Permanent Secretary for Transport and Housing Francis Ho Suen-wai told lawmakers yesterday that the government planned to extend island ferry operators' franchises from three years to 10 years after their new contracts expire in 2011.

'With a longer franchise, we believe operators would be able to better plan their investment, operations and management of the fleet.'

However, that would not happen until the service agreements for the six routes - between Central and Cheung Chau, Peng Chau, Sok Kwu Wan, Yung Shue Wan and Mui Wo, and inter-island services - set to begin on July 1, end three years later.

The profitable Central to Cheung Chau and inter-island routes have already been awarded to New World First Ferry.

Operators for the other four, less-profitable routes are still being sought as the previous bidder demanded a fare increase of up to 50 per cent, which the Transport Department deemed unacceptable. Fresh tenders have been called.

To attract more bidders in the new tender exercise, the government has proposed a reduction of ferry frequencies during non-peak hours, from every 40 or 45 minutes to once an hour. Several overnight sailings will also be cut and slower vessels will be allowed.

The department said such an arrangement could help operators save at least HK$1 million in fuel expenses and effectively contain fare increases. Average occupancy for the four routes ranged only between 18 per cent and 35 per cent, Mr Ho said, adding that there were only about two or three passengers on ferries operating from 2.30am to 3.40am.

But the Liberal Party lawmaker for transport, Miriam Lau Kin-yee, said this was unacceptable.

'How many years have we been talking about the opening of non-fare incomes for ferries? The government never takes any real action on that and now you expect island residents to pay more for reduced services?' she asked.

The Transport and Housing Bureau has proposed adding an extra level to the ferry terminal buildings in Central to boost rental income for operators.

Mr Ho said yesterday, however, that the government needed at least three years to evaluate relevant land policies and future strategies for the entire ferry business.

A public consultation will be carried out before the re-tendering exercise is launched next month.