Final crossing on New Year’s Eve

One of two fast boats docked at Swettenham Pier Cruise Terminal to temporarily replace Penang’s old ferries come New Year’s Day, when cars and pedestrians will no longer ride them across the Penang Channel. — CHAN BOON KAI/The Star

GEORGE TOWN: As the world bids farewell to 2020 on New Year’s Eve, Penang will also mark the end of its iconic ferry service when cars and pedestrians board the vessels for one final sail before they are replaced temporarily by fast boats.

Come Jan 1, it’s all systems go for Penang Port Sdn Bhd (PPSB) to take over the ferry service, ending its more than a century-long history.

“The two fast boats are here and unless there is a new directive, we will stick to the plan of using the fast boats from Jan 1 to temporarily ferry passengers, ” said PPSB chief executive officer Sasedharan Vasudevan.

One of the old ferries, he said, would be used for two-wheelers (motorcycles and bicycles) for now, adding that the fast boats would shorten travel time substantially.

“They can go up to 25 knots (46kph) but we plan to run them between 10 and 12 knots (18.5 and 22kph) owing to the short run.”

The channel between the island and mainland at the narrowest point is a mere 3km.

By comparison, the current decades-old ferries lumber through the waves at just seven to eight knots (13 to 15kph).

While the fast boats are in use, the two ferry terminals will be revamped for water buses and vehicle transporters to dock. This should take 12 to 18 months.

Once the refurbishment is completed, three water buses for passengers and two vehicle transporters for two-wheelers will replace the old ferries completely, probably by the third quarter of next year.

PPSB has earlier said a water bus can take in 200 passengers at a time while a vehicle transporter can accommodate 100 motorcycles and bicycles, both at speeds of 12 to 15 knots (22 to 27kph).

The refurbishment and acquisition of the water buses and vehicle transporters are expected to cost around RM64mil.

On the mainland, the ferry terminal will also be revamped, and Sasedharan said yesterday that a large pontoon was set up for pedestrians to board the fast boats.

This confirmation puts to rest a week of confusion after PPSB and Penang Port Commission (PPC) held a joint press conference announcing plans to upgrade the ferry service and retire the old ferries on Dec 16.

The development on the service caused a furore with the state government and Bagan MP Lim Guan Eng, a former chief minister, who claim the previous Pakatan Harapan government proposed faster catamarans to be used in parallel with the old ferries.

Chief Minister Chow Kon Yeow urged the Transport Ministry to reconsider its decision and instead purchase new ferries that will take cars.

Finance Minister Tengku Datuk Seri Zafrul Abdul Aziz added to the confusion with a statement in Parliament that the iconic ferry service would be maintained.

PPC chairman Datuk Tan Teik Cheng announced two of the existing ferries would be turned into a floating museum or restaurants, with tenders to be called next year.

For now, one of the old ferries will serve two-wheelers for the last time because motorcyclists are known to be reluctant to take the bridge, especially during bad weather.

One motorcyclist who takes the ferry regularly for the past 15 years said it was right to maintain the service for motorcyclists.

“It is dangerous to use the bridge during bad weather. The crosswinds can cause our motorcycles to wobble, and at certain hours there are just too many cars, ” said K. Thanenthiran, 49, who works in a shipping firm in Butterworth.

The first cross-strait ferry service started in 1894, making it the oldest such service in the country.

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