Penang speedboats – a Covid-19 time bomb?

It is regrettable that the ferry issue was rushed through with little thought given to the impact on ferry users

The Consumers Association of Penang (CAP) is of the opinion that the implementation of the Penang speedboat was done without taking into consideration many crucial factors that would adversely affect foot pedestrians.

What is of great concern is that there are no social distancing measures in place for the entire travel process, from the speedboat to the shuttle buses arranged to ferry commuters to the bus station in Weld Quay. This is shocking and totally unacceptable in light of the current massive spikes in Covid-19 cases in the community that the country is now experiencing amid the more dangerous third wave of infections.

Inside the speedboats, commuters have to sit close to one another in an enclosed and air-conditioned environment. In such an environment, the spread of any airborne disease, including Covid, would be very much higher than the well-ventilated “old” ferries that we had. In fact, the old ferries had social distancing measures (marked seats and floors to prevent close contact when sitting and queuing), crucial measures which are not implemented for the speedboats.

There are also no social distancing standard operating procedures in place for when the speedboat passengers queue and take the connecting shuttle bus arranged to take them to the Weld Quay bus station. The shuttle bus is often packed with passengers, who have to wait inside for some time before it moves as the bus follows a time schedule. This further increases passengers’ risk.

The speedboat is also not meant for bigger-size people because the seats are about 40cm wide. It is also not meant for the physically challenged because of the numerous obstacles along the way and the long distance to walk to the point of embarking or exiting the terminal after disembarking the speed boat.

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Although it was reported that wheelchair-bound persons would be carried into the boats by Penang Port Commission (PPC) attendants, neither terminal – the Swettenham Pier in George Town and Pengkalan Sultan Abdul Halim, Butterworth – complies with the Malaysian Standard Code of Practice on Access of Disabled Persons (MS) as required of all public transport stations.

Such requirements are not new as the Persons with Disabilities Act 2008 emphasises that persons with disabilities should have the same right to access and use public facilities, amenities, services and buildings. Besides, such persons are quite independent in moving around but having obstacles such as steps and steep ramps, which forces them to depend on assistance by attendants, is denigrating.

Only the Swettenham Pier building has escalators, but commuters will still be drenched if it rains because of the unsheltered walkway from the gate to the main building. A canopy should be constructed between the gate and the Swettenham Pier building.

Moreover, it is quite a distance between the entrance and the ferry terminal to the point of boarding the speedboat on either side of the Penang channel. Baggage-lugging passengers will experience a nightmare because they have to negotiate steps, steep ramps and narrow walkways, and step over the bulwark to the deck.

Will the speedboats only be used during the interim period between the “retirement” of the old ferries and the arrival of the catamarans in mid-2021? If so, why can’t the ferries still be used for the next six months or so? Even then, how will the pedestrian commuter route to the terminals be configured? Will lifts (large enough for wheelchairs) be considered?

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Instead of depending on vans to send those less able, those who are pregnant or those with heavy luggage to the boat, why doesn’t the PPC consider lifts since such facilities are meant as long-term features for the terminals?

Also, the free shuttle buses that normally ply between Weld Quay station and Komtar should be provided at the Swettenhem Pier itself to reduce the inconveniences faced by commuters, particularly if they are in a hurry to get to work.

It is regrettable that the ferry issue was rushed through with little thought given to the impact on ferry users, especially to their safety in the current worsening Covid situation.

Mohideen Abdul Kader is president of the Consumers Association of Penang

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