Discovery Bay residents fear fate of ferry service

Operator explores contracting service out as fares keep rising

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 29 December, 2013, 5:11am
UPDATED : Sunday, 29 December, 2013, 7:25am

Retiree Les Chu Kai-lan and his family have lived in Discovery Bay for more than a decade.

"We chose to live here because of the quiet and green environment that was unusual in Hong Kong," Chu said of the residential enclave on Lantau Island.

The regular ferry service to Central - a 25-minute ride, free of congestion and with a guaranteed seat - clinched the deal.

"The travelling time to Central was equivalent to, or often better than, when we lived in Pok Fu Lam," he said.

But a Transport Department notice posted at the entrance to the pier in September has Chu, and other residents, worried about the future of the all-important ferry service.

The department was seeking residents' views on a proposal by the ferry operator, Discovery Bay Transportation Services, to contract out the service. Dated September 12, it gave residents 17 days to respond. The deadline was later changed, giving residents an extra 10 days.

Many saw it as an attempt by the ferry operator - a subsidiary of developer Hong Kong Resort Company (HKR) - to shirk its responsibility.

Under a deed of mutual covenant among HKR, the government and the enclave's 18,000 residents, HKR has sole private development rights in Discovery Bay, but it is also obliged to provide ferry services to the city.

Residents say HKR has been increasing fares on an almost annual basis for years, yet it refuses to release figures for passenger numbers and fuel costs. In the absence of any communication from HKR, some suspect it would still manage the pier, seeking rent from the new operator - and leading to even higher fares.

When contacted to respond to the issue, HKR said only that the Transport Department was conducting the public consultation on contracting out the ferry service.

Discovery Bay residents were dependent on the ferry service from the start of the development in 1982 until 2000, when a road tunnel was completed, linking it to the Tung Chung MTR line.

A bus service was introduced, also run by HKR. It is cheaper and more convenient for those working in Kowloon, but a longer trip for the majority headed for Hong Kong Island. Buses are increasingly overcrowded in peak hours.

Adding to residents' woes, the ferry service between Discovery Bay and Mui Wo will be cut in February as a result of low usage and soaring fuel costs. About 40 schoolchildren use the ferry for a 20-minute ride that would take more than an hour by bus.

When Islands district councillor Amy Yung Wing-sheung found out about the notice, she carried out her own survey of residents. Of 348 replies, 99 per cent objected to the tender. A number of those were from people who had left Discovery Bay, fed up with high transport costs. Yung sent the replies to the department, but has yet to hear back.

The Transport Department approved a 9.5 per cent average fare rise in May. A one-way adult daytime ticket is now HK$37, while children and the elderly pay HK$18.50 - a rise of more than double the inflation rate. At night, costs are HK$52.70 and HK$33.80 respectively.

The department cited "prevailing and anticipated operating conditions" in approving the fare increase.

Yung says fares have risen almost every year since the late 1990s. "If the increase was small, in line with [inflation], we would let it go. But in 2008-09 we faced substantial increases, and cuts in ferry services of 25 to 30 per cent."

She wants the government to pay more attention to Discovery Bay since, under the terms of the deed, it can take back the area if HKR is seen to be failing to run the development appropriately.

For now, residents such as technical consultant Edwin Rainbow, who has lived in the enclave for 14 years, can only wait for more information.

"It is impossible for us to believe owners in Discovery Bay support fare increases on ferries and buses," he said. "But we have no real chance to express our opinions."