GEORGE TOWN: The retiring of the old Penang Ferry barges have been met with disdain by regulars and activists, saying it was not time yet for these state icons to be put out to pasture.
Most want the old barges to be retained for posterity because it was practical, with the vessels being an important link between George Town and Butterworth.
Commuters met by FMT on a ferry trip yesterday morning are upset that they will soon have to take a “fast ferry” similar to the ones used in Langkawi, saying it was not practical with social distancing nearly impossible in smaller boats.
Yesterday, port operators said they will spend RM64 million to buy five new vessels, two of which would transport motorcycles and bicycles.
According to the Penang Port Commission (PPC), the cost would also cover the upgrading of the terminals on the island and mainland.
One of the two ferries will be retained to transport just motorcycles for the time being until the new vessels are commissioned by July 2022, while the other barge would be retired for good.
Ferry regular Mohammad Sahabudin, in his 30s, said with the old ferry gone, he would be forced to take the Penang Bridge, which he said was “courting with danger” due to crosswinds and heavy traffic.
He said even if one barge was left for the sake of motorcyclists, the wait time would be long and will push most riders to take the bridge anyway.
Khairuddin Alias said he, like other motorcyclists, use the ferry a few times daily as a dispatch rider. He said with the ferry not available all the time, sending items between George Town and Butterworth would no longer be viable.
“How am I going to make money like this?” asked the 25-year-old.
G Shantini, a clerk who works in George Town, said she is afraid to take the new fast ferries as it might be impossible to carry out physical distancing in the age of Covid-19.
Greater risk to motorcyclists
State executive councillor Phee Boon Poh said he knows full well about the cross-wind dangers faced by motorcyclists using the two bridges, hence the ferries were a safer option.
He added that with more motorcyclists forced to take the bridge, traffic would inevitably increase and they are at greater risk of being involved in an accident.
“The old ferries should be maintained, as per the state executive council’s urging to the Penang Port Commission,” he said.
Consumers’ Association of Penang (CAP) president Mohideen Abdul Kader said the RM64 million being spent to buy new ferries and upgrade the terminals was wasteful when the existing fleet could be maintained at a much lower amount.
He predicted that the new vessels taking over in about two years would suffer from the same fate as the old ferries.
“The present fleet was poorly managed and maintained. It would have been financially viable if preventive maintenance was carried out.
“Why bother replacing it with anything else? All it needs is a subsidy from the government and competent people to run it and carry out necessary repairs to the barges,” he said.
Learn from Hong Kong
Penang Heritage Trust’s Clement Liang said the old ferries should be retained as it was the embodiment of the state in the eyes of locals and tourists alike.
He said even if the ferries were no longer used to take regular passengers, it should continue to ply the channel for pleasure cruises.
“The barges have been with us for nearly 50 years. Two generations have been in them and they are an icon. A skeletal service ought to be in place, not a total removal.
“Penang should learn from how Hong Kong have maintained their ferry services,” he said.
Civil society activist Anwar Fazal said the old ferries were an “icon of Penang’s illustrious maritime history”, offering a vista of the island’s sea, hills, bridges and urban landscapes.
He said the ferries could be restored to offer leisure tours at slow speeds, serving unique dishes on board.
“A suitable charge could be collected for the tour which could be from the Straits Quay area to the Penang Bridge area.
“The authorities in charge have a deep social responsibility to keep this heritage alive as an extension of the Unesco-related Universal Values for which the port city of George Town historic downtown was granted world heritage site status.
“The authorities will be celebrated as a socially- and culturally-responsible body.”
According to a parliamentary reply, annually 200,000 vehicles used the ferries aside from 1.2 million pedestrians.
Currently, the two ferries serving the 3km route between Pulau Talang-Talang and Pulau Angsa were built in 1975 and 1981, respectively. Both can accommodate cars, motorcycles and pedestrians.
According to police data furnished to FMT, there were a total of 172 motorcycle-related accidents on the Penang Bridge so far this year. – FMT