Ferry services between Mui Wo and Discovery Bay will continue for at least two years after the Marine Department agreed that the operator would not have to follow a new safety rule introduced after the 2012 Lamma ferry tragedy just yet.
Ferry operator Peng Chau Kaito had planned to stop services this coming Sunday due to rising costs, but has now renewed its licence until February 2016 after agreeing a deal on safety with the department.
The decision means 40 Mui Wo children who go to school in Discovery Bay will continue to make the 25-minute ferry journey instead of taking a bus, which takes three times as long. One district councillor called on the government to subsidise the service to ensure it continued.
The decision follows months of talks between company director Ken Wong Hon-kuen and marine safety officials. Wong had announced that services would stop in November last year, but then extended its services until Sunday and entered talks over a new licence.
The discussions hit a snag over a new code of practice under which the department would take into account specific emergency situations in deciding how many crew members had to be onboard a vessel.
Wong had originally been told that his company would have to increase crew numbers from the start of its licence period, despite the fact the new code will only come into effect in November for other operators.
But the two sides agreed at their last meeting on January 14 that Peng Chau Kaito would not have to increase the size of its crew until November.
The new code has been gazetted, but the department said it was still drafting guidelines to calculate how minimum crew numbers would be decided, and would only implement the measure when consensus was reached with the industry.
Transport minister Professor Anthony Cheung Bing-leung said yesterday that the government would provide assistance to individual boat operators, including financial subsidies, if they found it difficult to abide by new rules introduced after the October 2012 tragedy off Lamma, in which 39 people died.
Asked whether exemptions could be made for individual boat operators, Cheung said the decision was up to the head of the Marine Department.
He said the government was still talking to the industry about implementing other medium and long-term safety measures, including the installation of automatic identification systems and VHF radio.
Islands district councillor Amy Yung Wing-sheung, who represents Discovery Bay, said the government should not have imposed new conditions in the middle of the licence renewal talks.
The government subsidises some ferry routes on the outlying islands, but not kaito services. Yung said the government should consider subsidising those routes as well to make them sustainable.