Ferry safety forum signals plan for developing nations

A blueprint for safer ferry operations in developing nations has been drawn up at the inaugural Regional Forum on Domestic Ferry Safety - organised by the IMO and trade association Interferry under their ongoing joint project to stem ferry fatalities in the developing world.

Aimed at national maritime administrations and ferry operators in south-east Asia, the event was hosted by Indonesia in Bali on December 6-7 and attracted 74 participants. After two days of presentations and debate, they agreed an action plan ranging from accident reporting and investigation to guidelines on buying and running second-hand vessels.

Delegate attendance was supported by additional funding from South Korea, Australia and five Interferry members - Riverside Marine, International Marine Consultants, OSK Ship-Tech, Austal and Baird Publications.

“There was some speculation that ferry companies may have been reluctant to attend for fear of being made scapegoats for the region’s poor safety record,” says Interferry CEO Len Roueche, “but there were operators from Bangladesh, the Philippines, Vietnam, Australia and Indonesia and their contributions were invaluable.”

The forum was designed to launch a process of sharing information, challenges, ideas and solutions to improve the level of ferry safety, which continues to be very low in much of the region.
“Formal presentations soon developed into open and very frank discussions in which no-one hesitated to admit that they had enormous challenges that were not going to be easy to solve,” adds Roueche. “Solutions like ‘practical regulations effectively enforced’ ran up against the realities of funding, manpower and training. Nevertheless it was encouraging to hear about the major strides being made in some countries.”

Authorities from Indonesia and the Philippines described significant progress in developing thorough and practical regulations for domestic ferries. China identified several serious safety issues and outlined a comprehensive strategy involving more effective enforcement, additional investment in the sector and the reorganisation or consolidation of governmental agencies.
Among initiatives described by operators, Chet Pastrana of Philippines-based Archipelago Ferry Corp. explained how safety standards would rise with his company’s order for ten purpose-built ro-pax catamarans - designed in Australia and being built in China. This was in contrast to the nation’s usual practice of acquiring ‘hand-me-down’ tonnage from developed countries like Japan that was not always a good fit for Philippines operations.

From Vietnam, Chanh Nguyen of family-owned company Thanh Thoi explained how things might be changing in a country that in the past has not had much capability to invest in ferry transport. He said his company had recently launched the nation’s first car ferry operation to serve one of the offshore islands. The service had been very well received by residents and tourists, and a second vessel was now on order.

Highlights of the action plan agreed by the end of the forum included:
- initial facts of maritime accidents and incidents to be reported in the immediate aftermath; and subsequent accident investigation reports to be channelled through IMO’s established casualty investigation reporting system, enabling the information to be shared regionally on a regular basis
- information to be provided on the on the size and scope of domestic ferry operations in each participating nation
- safety policies to be developed for the purchase and operation of second-hand vessels
- encouragement of safety education for passengers
- a study of the impact of artificially low fares, including how negative impacts have been overcome in certain countries

Roueche acknowledges the ‘lively’ input of delegates both during the forum and during informal sessions such as the pre-event reception hosted by Interferry. But he warns: “The friendly and positive exchange of ideas in Bali will not amount to much unless the process continues. The fact that we turned words into a plan of action raises real hope in this respect.
“As the forum progressed, it became clear that peer pressure will be an important factor. No-one wants to be last in class or labelled as not keeping up. In the end this could be the most powerful incentive for change.”

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