High and dry? Cheung Chau residents demand added ferry services for morning peak hours
Originally published at the South China Morning Post on September 24, 2016.
By Harminder Singh and Jessie Lau
Population growth on Cheung Chau has residents calling for more ferry services during weekday morning peak hours in order to meet overwhelming demand for commuter transport.
According to some residents, maximum capacity is quickly being reached for the 6.20am fast ferry to Central, with up to 40 passengers left to wait for the next service on a daily basis. While some evening services are also beginning to fill up, the issue is not as critical as the mornings when children must get to school on time.
The situation has led many residents to voice their dissatisfaction at the ferry operator, New World First Ferry Services Limited (NWFF), via a Facebook page.
Disgruntled passengers on the Facebook page, which now has over 960 members, have criticised the ferry operator for having departure times that were either too early or late for them and their children.
Others have aired their frustrations over being left to catch the next ferry during the evening rush home, with seats for the 6.20pm fast ferry from Central also filling up quickly and leaving dozens to take the later, ordinary services.
Antonia Cable, a 20-year Cheung Chau resident, said residents had been told extra ferries were not available.
“[NWFF] has been told [of the problem] and each time [they] say they don’t have enough ferries or resources, and they can’t add anything extra,” she said. “But on Sundays when tourists come in, they add a lot of extra ferries, so we don’t believe the company.”
Cable said that most students needed to be at school by 8am, which was why the 6.20am service was in high demand. The ferry takes 35 to 40 minutes to reach Central pier, leaving students just enough time to reach their schools.
When the 6.20am fast ferry is at capacity, other options include the regular ferries, which are scheduled at 5.50am or 6.40am and take 55 to 60 minutes to reach Central pier. Meanwhile, the next scheduled fast ferry is at 7am.
Cable said while ferry staff bore the brunt of commuter frustrations at the pier in the morning, they were always apologetic, helpful and courteous, and said it was the ferry company’s management that was “making the decisions”.
Ryan Chan, a 30-year resident of Cheung Chau, said the situation had never been worse than it is now, as the island’s population grows rapidly with more and more young families moving in search of cheaper rent. He said ferries were filling to capacity so fast that they often left before their scheduled departure times.
Chan said he called NWFF and the Marine Department to complain, but both told him it was the other party’s concern.
Cheung Chau South district councillor Kwong Koon-wan said the situation was getting worse with more school children studying outside of Cheung Chau.
To solve the problem, Kwong called on NWFF to arrange more fast ferry services or deploy the larger “First Ferry III” vessel, which has 432 seats.
However, NWFF told Kwong that a lack of resources and qualified crew prevented the company from fulfilling the request.
A NWFF spokeswoman dismissed accusations of their services not fulfilling demand.
She said that the company deployed all available vessels in the fleet for the Cheung Chau-to-Central route, including six fast and three ordinary ferries.
A “tight sailing schedule” in the peak morning hours coupled with limited berthing slots and resources prevented NWFF from providing additional sailings or rearranging the vessel deployment “for the time being”, the spokeswoman said.
She said passenger demand between 5.10am and 6.40am was similar to last year and “the carrying capacities of those four sailings provided during that period are more than sufficient to cater demand”.
However, the company did acknowledge that travelling patterns may have changed recently, with many parents accompanying their children to school, and said it was likely a “transient increase of demand” for the 6.20am ferry.
NWFF also advised passengers to consider taking the ordinary ferry departing at 5.50am, which would give students “enough time to catch their lessons”.
The spokeswoman added that the firm had advised the Transport Department of its intention to reschedule sailings and was waiting a response.
A department spokeswoman said they were aware of complaints from passengers about the ferry arrangement. She said the department believed the commencement of the new school term was a cause and would “take some time to settle”.
In a survey conducted by the department yesterday, it found no one was left behind during the 6.20am sailing and that the ferry was 97 per cent occupied. The Friday 5.50am and 6.40am sailings showed an occupancy rate of between 40 and 60 per cent. The department concluded that passenger demand was able to be met. However, it found some passengers were left on the pier during the 6.20pm sailing, but were able to take the next ferry.
In light of these findings, the department and NWFF were reviewing recent changes in passengers’ travelling patterns, the spokeswoman said, and would “devise improvement measures as necessary and appropriate”.
The department added it has asked NWFF to review passenger demand and maintain “closer communications” with passengers about its sailing information.
NWFF took over operations from Hongkong and Yaumati Ferry Company Limited in January 2000. It currently operates six inner-harbour and outlying island ferry services, with a fleet of 16 vessels. Its licence to operate the Cheung Chau-to-Central route expires on June 30 next year.
Kwong said he hoped the government would not renew the licence and instead wants “[another] ferry company with experience to run the route”.
In a 2013 paper submitted by the Transport Department to the Legislative Council’s transport panel, figures showed a significant increase in passenger numbers for Central to Cheung Chau ferry services.
From 2009 to 2012, the number of daily passengers on the route increased by more than 3,100, highlighting the need for more ferry services. More recent figures from the Transport Department show 14.7 million passengers used NWFF services in 2014 – up two million passengers from 12.7 million in 2010.
Frustrations with the service operator boiled over in May when residents requested priority boarding during the Cheung Chau bun festival. Instead, resident reported difficulties boarding ferries as some 60,000 people visited the island.
At the time NWFF cited limitations at Cheung Chau pier to facilitate a residents-first queue. The company did however, provide additional ferries between Central and Cheung Chau during the festival.
Ferry services between urban Hong Kong and outlying islands are operated by a raft of other providers, including Hong Kong and Kowloon Ferry Limited and Tsui Wah Ferry Service.