Innovative ideas for funding ferries needed

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 15 March, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 15 March, 2008, 12:00am

Our city's public transport systems are the envy of the world. Their efficiency, cleanliness, safety record and reasonable fares compare favourably with services anywhere else. Commuters can look forward to consistently improving and cheaper services, such as with the MTR Corporation, mostly because the services operate on healthy and growing profits. In this, however, the outlying ferry services are an exception because there is constant pressure to reduce services.

Of the five major routes from Central, only that to Cheung Chau is profitable. The other four routes - to Mui Wo, Peng Chau, Yung Shue Wan and Sok Kwu Wan - have all failed to sustain profits. A sixth route travels between the islands. The rising cost of fuel adds more cost-cutting pressure on operators. The previous open bid for those four unprofitable routes failed because the only bidder demanded a fare increase of up to 40 per cent.

Yesterday, the government launched a new tender for the four routes, with terms and conditions revised from the last bid. Ferry frequency during non-peak hours will be reduced by only 5 to 10 minutes, much less than originally envisioned. Overnight services for Mui Wo and Peng Chau will be maintained. Slower and smaller ferries will be allowed on three of the four routes, except for Mui Wo, which will maintain both fast and ordinary boats.

The new terms - to be reviewed in three years - may satisfy most parties for now and buy some time for the government, provided that bidders learn from the last tender and do not demand excessive fare rises. But the basic conundrum remains: essentially, better-off islanders are willing to accept higher fares to maintain service standards, but those with lower incomes oppose them. The government, however, will not consider subsidising services. As part of a study to rejuvenate the Central harbourfront, it is thinking about adding an extra floor to the outlying islands pier. This may offer a solution. Ferry operators will be given more space to sublet to third parties and earn rental income to subsidise unprofitable routes. This is likely to be the most practical and acceptable long-term solution.