PUBLISHED : Monday, 16 December, 2013, 3:29pm
UPDATED : Monday, 16 December, 2013, 4:04pm

Ferry safety – does the Marine Department take it seriously?


Anna is a business writer. During her 20-year Hong Kong career, she’s written everything from stock market reports and luxury goods sector analysis to speeches for the HKSAR Chief Executive and served as president of the Foreign Correspondents’ Club for two years.

Several blogs ago, I wrote about the concerns of several passengers about safety onboard New World First Ferries from Central to Mui Wo on Lantau. I contacted the Marine Department, requesting a chat with the Director of Marine, Francis H P Liu. This was not forthcoming. So I sent questions instead.

I asked about huge baby buggies blocking aisles and emergency exits and school parties with mounds of kit, piling onto small ferries with no space for camping gear. I asked about the ferry that sailed loaded with a school party, before the scheduled time, leaving regular passengers stranded at the pier. I asked about the ferries sailing with more school children than seats – that’s called overloading – and unsupervised school kids being allowed to run riot onboard, and in one recent case, harassing an elderly person in a wheelchair. I also referred to the First Ferry staff, whose reaction when safety breaches are pointed out to them is usually to shrug and smile, or just walk away.

Scared of confrontation?

Maybe they don’t want confrontation - the parents of babies in huge strollers can react aggressively when asked to stow the buggy in the luggage rack - as I have discovered. 

But that’s no excuse. If a ferry capsizes with several strollers blocking the aisles, passengers will not be able to get out quickly. It’s that simple.

Director of Marine replies

The Director of Marine did not address any of my questions. Instead, after several days, his staff wrote that the Marine Department attaches great importance to safety at sea.

They wrote that:  “the department has carried out special ferry inspections and no irregularities have been found so far.” They obviously have not taken many ferry rides then.

“Nevertheless, the Department has reminded the ferry operator to follow safety measures, including:

i) overloading is strictly prohibited;
ii) aisles and emergency exits of ferries must not be obstructed at all times; and
iii) make announcement to address the situations if children are found running around onboard ferries.”

Ferry staff ignore rules

This is all well and good, but when are the ferry staff actually going to implement the safety rules? Only yesterday, aisles were still being obstructed by baby buggies.

“The department will continue to monitor the situation closely,” they said. Should I have any concern of safety issues onboard, "please call our Command Centre at 2385 2791 (24 hours). Thank you again for bringing it to our attention.”

Not good enough

I showed the Marine Department’s email to a friend, who like me, travels the Mui Wo route daily. “Just not good enough,” was her verdict, adding that we should start a photo diary.

I am disappointed and surprised by their response. It was my misfortune to cover the sinking of The Herald of Free Enterprise, a huge car ferry which capsized minutes after sailing form the Belgian port of Zeebrugge in 1987, drowning 193 passengers and crew. The harrowing tales of trapped adults and children, screaming and clambering desperately over one another as they tried to escape haunts me still. Ferries do sink: that’s a fact. After the Lamma ferry disaster last year, I would have hoped my email would have inspired the Marine Department to prod New World First Ferry staff to tighten up. But no. On Saturday it was the same old story: SUV-sized baby buggy blocking the aisle of a small Mui Wo ferry. What would it take to persuade the them to take ferry safety more seriously?   


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