It was bemusing to see politicians on both sides of the political divide engaged in a recent war of words about saving the Penang ferries.
Both sides seemed to agree that these “‘iconic heritage ferries” should be saved or showcased elsewhere so that foreign tourists and local visitors could take joy rides.
But let’s be clear from the outset. The vast majority of daily riders on the ferries – whether passengers or motorists – are local residents from Penang, either going to work or running some personal errand or on weekend trips. From my observation, they far outnumber tourists and out-of-town visitors, who use the ferries mainly during school holidays, weekend breaks and festive periods.
So the premise for saving the old ferry service – for tourism purposes – starts on the wrong footing.
The hastily introduced boats are a poor substitute for the ferries, not to mention hardly friendly to people with disabilities. A crowd of people in an enclosed cabin with not much physical distancing is not ideal, unlike the old airy ferries where there was plenty of room for passengers with sea air freely circulating through the upper and lower decks.
For decades, the old ferries provided an essential public service of taking locals across the channel. Tourists also found the ferries shuttle a pleasant attraction, but that was just the icing for what was essentially a public service for residents.
The larger issues is this: both the Barisan Nasional and later Pakatan Harapan have showed little inclination to improve our public transport (especially buses and bus rapid transit, ferries and other better, cheaper, faster solutions).
Instead, the politicians spend much time, energy and money (not theirs, of course) on multibillion ringgit mega-projects.
The 1970s and 1980s were the golden era for the ferries. Waiting time for a ferry back then was around seven minutes – one ferry would arrive and another leave at about the same time. Journey times were short – 13 minutes across the channel for the newer ferries and 14-15 minutes for the older one (from the blare of the ferry horn at the start of the journey until the gangway was lowered at the end of the journey). I used to time the rides.
So it is funny to see the new boats now in service being touted as providing a speedier ride, with a journey time of around 10 minutes. This is only marginally quicker than the ferries of the 1970s. (I don’t know why ferries in recent years slowed down to a 20-30-minute ride across the channel.)
First, let’s look at the BN government’s public transport performance in Penang.
Neglect of buses
The BN government since the mid-1980s showed little interest in developing public transport in Penang, which once had an excellent network of buses and earlier, trolleybuses and even trams.
Until a few decades ago, the Municipal Council of George Town ran a city-wide bus service, with a fleet of 75 buses and almost 500 employees. Four other bus companies operated on the island and 14 on the mainland.
In 1980, 407 buses were registered across the state to serve a population of 900,000. These buses carried over 250,000 passengers per day. This extensive bus service provided jobs for almost 2,000 employees.
In addition, factory buses and school buses transported another 100,000 folks. For a state population of 900,000 back then, those were pretty decent figures for public transport ridership.
Unfortunately, things changed.
The City Council bus service was privatised when Thatcherite privatisation was the vogue – and the City Council lost its well-run bus service. This was a huge loss for decentralised public transport under the control of local government.
From then, it was a free-for-all bus ‘market’. Enter the cowboy-type operations running smoke-emitting mini-buses, probably discarded from the Klang Valley. Although many commuters still crammed into these buses, the service grew unreliable, the schedule erratic, and even the routes appeared subject to sudden changes at the drivers’ whims.
More people turned to cars and motorcycles, which were made more affordable through hire-purchase schemes.
After concerted pressure from a civil society alliance, Citizens for Public Transport (Cepat), the BN state government moved to set up a state bus corporation in 2007.
But before you could say yes!, the federal government stepped in to form the federally controlled Rapid Penang, with the acquisition of new buses going to a politically well-connected company.
In most places around the world, public transport is a local responsibility. The city normally runs the transport service because local authorities should know local needs best. But the BN state government ceded control to the federal government.
Today, the federally controlled Rapid Penang has a fleet of close to 400 buses (with perhaps fewer than 300 operational) – about where we were in 1980. But the population of Penang has almost doubled since 1980.
By this time, the car culture had become entrenched. These Rapid Penang buses carried less than 100,000 commuters daily before the pandemic broke out (compared to a regular bus ridership of 250,000 in 1980).
Meanwhile, the BN federal government under Dr Mahathir Mohamad was busy introducing Proton in 1985, thus encouraging more people to buy cars. The same year marked the opening of the Penang Bridge, the control (and revenue) for which fell to federal hands.
So there was little incentive to improve and promote public transport in Penang since the Mahathir era.
Today, thanks to the BN federal and state governments of the time, less than 5% of the people use public transport in Penang, compared to 67% in Singapore.
Decline of ferries
An old-timer once told me the ferries were profitable back in that era, and the profits were even used to subsidise Penang port operations.
The golden years for the Penang ferries were in the 1970s and 1980s. Back then, about a dozen ferries plied the channel, including newer double-decker ferries. Older Penangites would be familiar with these ferries named after various islands – Pulau Pinang (the older vintage ferry), Langkawi, Aman, Tioman and Redang. Double-decker vehicular ferries were introduced from the late 1970s, also named after islands: Undan, Talang-Talang, Kapas, Rimau, Angsa and Rawa. These docked at specially built new ferry terminals built on the island and the mainland.
When the ferries grew older and too expensive to maintain, new ferries were brought to replace them.
But when the old terminal on the mainland collapsed in 1988 after its plank-floored upper deck collapse due to overcrowding. The terminal was never rebuilt, and the older ferries (which used this terminal and its counterpart on the island) were stopped.
Overnight, the number of ferries was halved. As waiting times grew longer, more motorists began using the then underutilised Penang bridge. It would seem that was the idea. So, the drastic cut in the ferry service and the government’s emphasis on the national car marked the beginning of the decline of the ferries.
Penang bridge tolls not used to subsidise public transport
Once the Penang port was privatised along with the ferry service, port operators were more interested in the profitable port operations.
Nobody seemed interested in the now loss-making ferries, even though the losses were negligible (RM15m-RM20m per year), considering the essential public service the ferries provided. Compare this to the willingness to spend RM170m per year on the maintenance of the proposed elevated light rail.
The Penang Bridge tolls, which had repaid the cost of the bridge several times over, could have been used to subsidise the ferries. But this was not done. Who knows where the profits from commuters have gone.
Meanwhile, ferries became like a stepchild whom nobody seemed keen on. It was like a vicious circle. Fewer ferries operated even though the demand was still strong. Eventually many motorists, fed up with the increasingly infrequent ferry service and wasted time waiting and waiting, just gave up and used the bridge – even though the route was much longer.
There was no political will to integrate the buses with the ferries so that a shuttle buses could ride into the ferry without passengers having to embark and disembark and board on foot to get across.
So, it is disingenuous to say that fewer people and cars were using the ferries, and therefore it meant there was less demand. People were just fed up with the neglected and infrequent ferry service, which was once the pride of Penang.
This neglect of the ferries created even more demand for the first bridge, which grew congested, allowing the BN government to justify a RM4bn second bridge. This route at the southern part of the state is still under-used to this day, as the route is even longer for those living and working further north.
Another huge oversight came when the BN government failed to include a rail line when building the first and second bridge over the line. Imagine if you could take a train from KL Sentral all the way to George Town in Penang over the Penang bridge, how much easier it would be for passengers from Klang Valley travelling to Penang Island.
Even now, there is no political will to build a dedicated bus lane over the bridge to ensure quicker rides for public transport. This would be the best time for such a lane, given the lower volume of cars on the road, with many working from home.
All this reveals a mindset that shows little thought for public transport. It is no wonder that the mode share of public transport has fallen to below 5% in Penang.
In part two soon, we’ll take a look at the Pakatan Harapan’s record since 2008.