End of the line for Hung Hom ferry routes

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 31 March, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 31 March, 2011, 12:00am

It's shortly after 11am on a chilly weekday and the Hung Hom Star Ferry pier is - as usual - largely deserted. A staff member moors an approaching ferry at the dock and hands out takeaway lunchboxes to his on-board colleagues.

For ferryman Mo, in his 50s, a bit of an odd-job specialist in his time, the Hung Hom pier is the best place he has ever worked. And it is not difficult to see why.

'Working at a pier is very relaxing,' he said. 'Especially when there are not many passengers, you can look out at the sea and see the waves. It is comfortable and you can breathe in the fresh air.'

But it is this lack of passengers that explains why the ferry will no longer operate from tomorrow.

Services to Central and Wan Chai are being axed as the Star Ferry Company's licences will expire today. No operators expressed interest in running the routes during two rounds of tendering, and the Transport Department pulled the plug.

Mo began his career as a pier assistant at the Jordon Road pier. For him, the golden days of travelling by ferry are gone.

'I served the car ferries to Sheung Wan almost 30 years ago. It was so different from how it is now - they carried many more passengers. There were hawkers and eateries near the pier area. There were so many people, it looked like it never slept,' he said.

Now in Hung Hom, the ferries carry only about a dozen passengers during the slow hours in the afternoon. They are mostly Whampoa Garden residents and elderly people.

The pier has a staff of three - two assistants who help moor vessels and a ticket seller. There are about seven sailors on board the ferries.

'When I came to Hung Hom three years ago, it was already a quiet place. We all had the feeling that it would close one day,' Mo said.

Ferry services between Hung Hom and Central started in 1965 as a way to ease congestion at the Tsim Sha Tsui pier. The original Hung Hom pier was about 900 metres northwest of its current site, near what is now Polytechnic University's student dormitory.

In 1988, the pier was moved to a temporary site 120 metres along Hung Hom South Road to make way for reclamation. The current pier opened in 1991, with a bus terminus offering services to East Kowloon, Ma On Shan and Tin Shui Wai.

Star Ferry took over the service to Wan Chai in 1999 from Yau Ma Tei Ferry, and that was when its triangular service between Hung Hom, Wan Chai and Central started.

But with a planned MTR line to run from Sha Tin to Central, Mo sees a diminishing role for Hung Hom as an interchange for commuters. And he said poor transport connections from the Hung Hom ferry terminal were another deterrent.

'It is no longer near the railway station, and there are no bus routes to Mong Kok or Tsuen Wan. When people want to travel by ferry, they choose Tsim Sha Tsui instead,' he said.

Mo is employed at the pier on a contract basis and does not know what the future holds for him when the ferry service stops.

'I hope I can still work at a pier. Victoria Harbour at sunset is the most beautiful scene in the world,' he said. For long-time passengers, it's goodbye to a service they have used for decades.

Chan Yun-biu, 62, spent his youth in the area and took the ferry to work every day before he retired.

'It was convenient, and you could time your journey accurately because the ferries come regularly,' he said. The ferry service's best days were in the 1970s, he said - before the MTR and when making the journey by bus was less common.

'Every evening when people finished work there would be long queues of commuters waiting to get on board the ferry,' he said.

Chan said he hoped another company would operate the ferry service during rush hour at least, so that Whampoa Garden residents have a cheaper option to get across the harbour.

Fares for the ferry service from Hung Hom to Wan Chai or to Central are both HK$6.30, compared with about HK$10 for the bus.

Lam Lai-king, 54, is also a frequent ferry passenger. She said the demise of the ferry service began when the Central Star Ferry pier was relocated in 2007.

Lam said that before the pier was moved, many commuters to Admiralty took the ferry as it was just a 10-minute walk from Central Pier. Now it is no longer in walking distance.

'Now when I go to Central, for example to The Landmark, I prefer taking the bus as I don't need to walk all that way,' she said.

Since the Hung Hom service was launched in 1999, Star Ferry has carried more than 28 million passengers to and from Hung Hom, Wan Chai and Central. Now the ferries take about 400 passengers to Central and 500 to Wan Chai during the morning rush hour on weekdays.

The company lost HK$20 million over the 12 years it operated the routes, and posted losses for 10 of those. Ferries to North Point, which leave from another pier at the terminal and are operated by New World First Ferry Services, will not be affected.