Home Aliran CSI Fake ferry wars: Bridges (and tunnel) over troubled waters (Part 2)

Fake ferry wars: Bridges (and tunnel) over troubled waters (Part 2)

The war of words over the "iconic ferries" was a diversion from the real issue, ie the utter lack of interest in promoting an integrated sustainable mobility system

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In Part One, we looked at the failure of the Barisan Nasional government in Penang to move towards sustainable mobility.  

Now, let’s look at the Pakatan Harapan’s record since 2008, when it captured power in Penang.

The Penang government got off on the right foot and in 2009, set up the Penang Transport Council, which included civil society representatives.

This council proposed that the state government come up with a transport masterplan for the state.

Heeding the call, the state government and the Northern Corridor Implementation Agency, on 27 April 2011, appointed AJC Planning Consultants Sdn Bhd, Halcrow and the Singapore Cruise Centre to produce a masterplan.

From transport blueprint to land reclamation

But shockingly, before the consultants could even start work, the next day, 28 April 2011, the state government signed a memorandum of understanding with Beijing Urban Construction Group (BUCG) for a cross-channel tunnel and a couple of highways in Penang Island – witnessed by then-Prime Minister Najib Razak and then-China Premier Wen Jiabao in Putrajaya.

This was a regressive move that would only encourage more cars on the road. It also preempted the work of the transport consultants tasked with coming up with a transport masterplan for the state.

Halcrow submitted its reports to the state government in 2012 – and it had little choice but to include the tunnel-highways mega-project.

But it also proposed an extensive system of buses, trams (including elevated and dedicated sections), and water transport.

Yes, the original consultants did propose catamarans to replace the ferries. But they were working on the assumption that the frequency of the ferries could not be increased (presumably because it was under federal control).

So, there was no way to introduce economies of scale by expanding the ferries and spreading fixed costs (administrative, staffing and maintenance expenses) over a larger fleet of the “iconic ferries” (especially when there was no political will to expand the ferry service).

The consultants presumed that more motorists would head to the increasingly congested Penang Bridge, which turned out to be true.

The PH state government rarely demanded improvements in ferries before now. It did work on improvements to buses (free CAT buses) and cross-channel buses with mixed results. And it even wanted 30 permits for water taxis when it tried to take over the ferries in 2015.

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But the thrust of the PH-led state government was on its mega-projects – massive land reclamation, first near the tunnel site along Gurney Drive.

Then it hired SRS as its ‘project delivery partner’ to implement the Halcrow plan for a fee. But SRS put forward a radically different RM46bn plan with two key components in the first phase – the RM9bn six-lane Pan Island Link highway and a single expensive RM10bn elevated light rail line.

Ah yes, the massive land reclamation – the real prize in the ‘transport’ project: three artificial islands spanning 4,500 acres smack in prime fishing waters.

These three islands would cater to over 440,000 more people (cue, drool over the property development). The catch is, nobody really knows where these people will come from as the total fertility rate for Penang has fallen to 1.3 children per woman, well below the population replacement level of 2.1 children.

These mega-projects shouldn’t come as a surprise as construction giant Gamuda and two Penang-based property developers made up the ‘project delivery partner’ consortium.

Even when it captured federal power in 2018, the PH government failed to quickly change the public transport power structure. It failed to decentralise the ferries, buses and the Penang bridges back to the state government and local governments so that they would have the power to improve sustainable mobility at the local level.

The toll profits from the first bridge could have easily funded the expansion of the bus fleet and subsidised ferry operations. Electric shuttle buses could even have boarded the ferries to improve connectivity and passenger comfort.

The PH government also failed to quickly improve last-mile connectivity, or at least set things in motion.

The new PH federal transport minister tried to tell the Penang government “our (Land Public Transport Agency or Spad) studies showed that LRT is not the best option for Penang. Maybe the tram or other modes of transportation”.

But the Penang government was having none of it, and it was back to the RM46bn “PTMP” business as usual. It was not interested in the cheaper solutions that Halcrow and the NGOs were proposing. Instead, it was more interested in justifying the massive land reclamation to finance mega-projects: the extravagant light rail project and the RM9bn highway, which would even compete with the light rail line.

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The state government did agree with the catamaran plan that Halcrow had recommended. So that is the plan we have now.

But crucially, the state government and its corporate partners dropped Halcrow’s plan for tram lines connecting the ferry terminal – radiating westwards, southwards and northwards. In particular, it dumped Halcrow’s plan for a tramline from the ferry terminal to the airport.

In its place, the Penang government favoured the elevated light rail from Komtar in George Town to the Penang airport (which would later extend to the controversial three islands in the south).

Yes, the SRS ‘project delivery partner’ proposed a tram line for a later phase stage, but this was just limited to George Town, presumably targeted at tourists and visitors. This line was another bit in a disjointed hodgepodge of transport infrastructure that left many sustainable mobility experts bewildered.

To many observers, the expensive transport mega-projects, so at variance with what the original Halcrow consultants had proposed, appeared aimed at justifying the massive reclamation for property developers in the state.

All said, the recent war of words over the ferries between both sides of the political divide was a phoney war. Both sides have shown no concerted, consistent political will to improve public transport ridership over the years, especially the buses and ferries.

They have been more interested in mega-projects like bridges, tunnels, mega-highways, ring roads, outdated monorail, a costly elevated light rail line and massive land reclamation.

The Singapore experience

While so-called PTMP supporters may look at Singapore and point to its highway network, they fail to highlight the island republic’s high public transport ridership.

Long before Singapore introduced its mass rapid transit (MRT) trains, it worked on improving its bus service to provide a solid base for public transport use. Today, Singapore has close to 6,000 buses with a daily pre-pandemic ridership of four million passengers per day – even higher than the republic’s rail ridership of 3.5 million passengers.

That’s 6,000 buses in an area smaller than Penang state. OK, if you say Singapore has three times the population of Penang, well then we should have 2,000 buses here. Instead, what we have is just 400 buses in Penang carrying fewer than 100,000 passengers per day (much lower than the ridership in 1980!).

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So, if we really want to emulate Singapore, copy this: in 2008, 59% of all journeys during peak hours in the island republic were on public transport. This rose to 63% in 2012 and 67% in 2017. The Singapore government’s target is 75% by 2030.

Penang’s public transport ridership? Less than 5%. Say no more.

Phoney war

The PH federal transport minister did some welcome things like promoting season passes for buses in Penang, but such efforts were not built on.

So, the Penang ferries were neglected over the years; the Halcrow plan to expand its routes to include water taxis covering more routes seemed to be downplayed, and the buses in Penang were left to run with little political will to expand its service and boost last-mile connectivity.


We don’t have an extensive bus network covering cross-channel routes either, and no dedicated bus lanes on the Penang bridge or anywhere else in the state. For example, if you drive from the air force base in Butterworth to Jelutong on the island, it would take just 30 minutes using the bridge. But the same journey by bus-boat-bus would take 100 minutes, according to a public transport app.

So what incentive is there for commuters to switch from their cars to public transport? This is worrying as motor vehicles are the biggest contributor to emissions in Malaysia at a time of mounting concern over climate change.

The Halcrow plan pointed out that the ferries could only be justified as an integral part of a wider transport strategy – but this is precisely what is missing in Penang now.

So, the war of words over the “iconic ferries” was a diversion from this real issue, ie the utter lack of interest in promoting an integrated sustainable mobility strategy (including ferries that could be linked to buses, bus rapid transit and modern trams).

Instead, the political focus is on mega-projects that will surely cost the public dearly in more ways than one.

The views expressed in Aliran's media statements and the NGO statements we have endorsed reflect Aliran's official stand. Views and opinions expressed in other pieces published here do not necessarily reflect Aliran's official position.

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Politi Scheiss
Politi Scheiss
28 Jan 2021 7.52am

Thanks for a comprehensive account of the problems with Penang’s public transport system and the hypocrisy of both BN and Pakatan politicians over the “iconic ferries”. I’m sad to see the ferries go too.

However, in the bigger picture, what alternatives are there for a solution of this problem if both BN and Pakatan state and federal governments are not interested in implementing the sensible measures proposed by the consultants and civil society?

This problem is due both sides sharing the same misguided notions and self-serving agendas, or agendas which serve particular interest groups.

This is why, I am now ambivalent as to which side wins government, since there is little difference between both.

Khoo Soo Hay
Khoo Soo Hay
24 Jan 2021 10.35am

If the Barisan and UMNO are still in power, all these will be built without dissent or objection over its costs. It may even be more costly as [certain] ministers [may want to] have their share of the project!

loyal malaysian
loyal malaysian
24 Jan 2021 5.42am

Thank you, Anil.
Read with your Part I , this is a comprehensive take on the fake ferry wars- yes, Lim Guan Eng was crying crocodile tears!!
From your input, it is obvious the PH state govt. is as much at fault over the termination[now temporary] of the iconic Penang ferry services.
The state govt. is more interested in pushing for its mega transport projects – well the jury is still out, if it will take off, now that the PH federal govt. had been overthrown.

Perhaps, to be fair to Penang, unlike Singapore, one mitigating factor for our utterly hopeless public transportation I can see is that the ferry services, Rapid Penang and Penang bridge are not under state control.

Would love your thoughts, please comment.x