Slow going on safety improvements a year after Lamma ferry disaster
Industry resistance, bureaucracy and inertia are delaying steps to make ferry travel safer, a year after worst maritime tragedy in decades
Ada Lee and Thomas Chan
The tragedy off Lamma Island a year ago today put the spotlight on a host of safety problems, poor practices at the Marine Department and an industry that failed to comply with the law.
Twelve months on, a steering committee under transport minister Professor Anthony Cheung Bing-leung is overseeing reform of the department, criticised by the commission of inquiry into the disaster for "serious systemic failings", while an internal inquiry is also under way. The government has also proposed improving safety measures for vessels.
What is lacking - despite the loss of 39 lives after the Sea Smooth ferry and Lamma IV launch collided on National Day last year - is concrete action to make our waterways safer.
For Ryan Tsui Chi-shing, who lost his elder brother and niece in Hong Kong's worst maritime disaster since 1971, the silence has been deafening.
"The government tried to cool down the matter by keeping its mouth shut," Tsui said. Government officials had helped victims' families, but turned cold after a commission of inquiry condemned the Marine Department in its report.
The Transport and Housing Bureau said the internal investigation would take time and the steering committee would continue to explore ways to address the department's shortage of staff.
As for the proposed safety measures, industry leaders have come out strongly against tighter rules. Sources say a lack of resources in the Marine Department and its traditionally close relationship to the marine industry have caused problems in pushing forward new safety rules.
Their claims are backed up by government figures showing that the department's staffing has shrunk by more than 10 per cent in the past decade. In 2003, there were 1,529 permanent posts. The number fell to 1,498 the following year and now stands at 1,372.
Even with its headcount reduced, many posts remain unfilled. For example, five of 55 marine officer posts and six of 50 surveyor posts are vacant. Between them these employees are responsible for inspecting ships and signing off on plans for new vessels.
Surveyors and officers were responsible for studying 5,177 plans and inspecting 2,045 vessels last year. The department approved 3,795 plans from January to August this year, and inspected 1,260 boats.
The department said posts had been cut since 2003 because it had streamlined procedures and withdrawn from some areas of work, and because of voluntary retirements. The posts scrapped included obsolete ones such as office assistant and property attendant.
A spokeswoman said there was a "small net increase" in the number of professional staff.
A source close to the Marine Department said it had experienced difficulties in hiring for years. A person first needs to obtain a licence to control ocean-going vessels and spend time working at sea before becoming a marine officer.
"Seafarers are not very respected in Hong Kong, so few people will join the industry," he said.
Between 2009 and last year, the department hired six marine officers and seven surveyors from the mainland through the Admission Scheme for Mainland Talents and Professionals.
The lack of manpower was a reason why the department failed to identify that a watertight bulkhead shown in the original plans for the Lamma IV was missing, the source said. The commission of inquiry criticised the department for its failure to pick up on the missing door, which experts say could have kept the ferry afloat after the collision.
"If the plan was submitted by a shipyard with a good reputation, an official would just skim through it," the source said.
"The Marine Department is a technical department. It doesn't make a lot of noise and because of its good relationship with the industry, there were few complaints against it. When it came to allocating funds, the department would not be a high priority because the public could hardly notice what it had done."
Another criticism of the department at the commission of inquiry was that it failed to implement a law requiring all boats to have one life jacket for each passenger at its maximum capacity, and to have child-size life jackets equivalent to 5 per cent of capacity.
The source said that failure could be down to the cosy relationship with the industry.
"The department knew the impact on the industry if the law was implemented strictly," the source said. "If the industry couldn't survive, why have the department?"
That close relationship also goes some way to explaining the slow progress on introducing new safety measures. Only recently did vessel operators and the department agree on the implementation of the first of five phases of safety improvements.
The code of practice for operators is to be amended this month, with the changes to take effect in six months.
One measure requires vessels that carry more than 100 passengers to have a lookout on the bridge at night and in reduced visibility. Boats will also have a master list setting out the duties of every member of the crew in the event of an emergency.
For all vessels, the number of crew required in specific emergency situations has to be taken into account in determining the minimum safe number of crew. The name of the vessel should be printed on every life jacket and watertight doors with alarms must be fitted to the wheelhouse.
But the industry continues to resist longer-term measures, including the installation of an automatic identification system and VHF radio, on the grounds that they are expensive and unnecessary.
Another source close to the Marine Department said professional staff were frustrated that its management was filled with career civil servants who prioritised cost-cutting and political considerations.
"The department always prefers hiring overseas consultants to consulting its technical staff when it faces any big problems," he said.
On the manpower problems, he said local youngsters were reluctant to join the industry. Vessel captains, who would be qualified to join the Marine Department's professional ranks, were unlikely to give up higher salaries to take a government job, he added.
The source also cast doubt on one aspect of the commission of inquiry's findings: its criticism of the department's failure to set and follow clear procedural rules.
While civil servants were keen on procedures, professionals relied on their experience.
But Ryan Tsui isn't interested in the ins and outs of Marine Department politics. He says laws must be tightened - especially after the owners of the two ferries, Hongkong Electric and Hong Kong and Kowloon Ferry subsidiary the Island Ferry Company, were fined just HK$900 and HK$5,000 respectively for breaches of safety rules related to the crash. The captains of the two vessels have each been charged with 39 counts of manslaughter.
"The amount of the fines is just a drop in the ocean for the two big companies," Tsui said. "The laws should be harsh enough to protect the safety of passengers at sea."