EDITORIAL | Domestic ferry safety improves in parts of Asia

EDITORIAL | Domestic ferry safety improves in parts of Asia

Photo: Sundance79/Wikipedia

The years 2016 to 2019 have shown a dramatic improvement in domestic ferry safety in significant parts of Asia. Thankfully, some governments have awakened to the tragic problem of domestic ferry accidents and their resulting fatalities. Tragically, however, some governments remain oblivious to the dangers that exist on the seas, rivers and lakes in their national jurisdictions.

This has followed a similar reduction in ferry fatalities in Northern Europe from 1995 to 2000 and, since then, in Southern Europe. Worldwide, ferry fatalities have been reduced from at least 2,000 per annum to about 1,500 from 2015 to 2019. This is a very encouraging start but we still have a long way to go.

China and the Philippines have improved very impressively

The reduction in the numbers of ferry fatalities in China and the Philippines from 2015 until now have been very impressive. They show what can be achieved by the determined sensible actions of national governments.

From an average of three “known” fatal accidents producing 90 fatalities per annum from 2000 to 2015, China has seen a reduction to an average of 0.25 accidents resulting in four fatalities annually from 2016 to 2019.

An Archipelago Ferries FastCat Ro-Pax ferry. This fast growing fleet of similar safe, modern vessels has inspired other Filipino owners to upgrade their fleets

Very importantly, China recorded zero ferry fatalities from 2017 to 2019.

Over the same period, the Philippines reduced from an average of three “known” accidents and 168 fatalities per annum to an average of 2.5 accidents and 35 fatalities annually. This is remarkable!

Bangladesh has also improved significantly

Bangladesh has achieved what would have widely been thought to be impossible not long ago. Its record has reduced from an average of four “known” fatal accidents resulting in an average of 383 fatalities annually between 2000 and 2015 to five accidents resulting in 53 fatalities per annum over the last four years.

Bangladesh, too, recorded zero fatal accidents in 2019. This is very impressive.

Other countries have not performed so well

Regrettably, some other Asian countries have not performed so well. Indeed, some countries are actually suffering more ferry fatalities than previously. Indonesia, India, Myanmar, Thailand and Malaysia have all failed to improve. In fact, Indonesia is now the second worst country on the planet for ferry fatalities after the DR Congo. That is disgraceful.

Tourist boat accidents, such as this one involving the Phoenix in Thailand are devastating for the local tourist industries. Photo: TransTimes

Part of their problem is that, with the wider adoption of the Internet, more news comes out of such places than ever before. That better reveals the true extent of their problems.

All of those countries could learn a lot from China and the Philippines.

There have been more tourist boat accidents

The four years from 2016 to 2019 have seen a significant increase in the numbers of fatalities arising from accidents involving tourist boats. Several countries, including the five listed above, have recorded increasing numbers of both accidents and fatalities. These have mainly involved tourist boats.

This cannot be good for their very important tourist industries.

China and the Philippines lead the way in safety reforms

Just as the sinking of the Herald of Free Enterprise inspired the UK Government to reform and the Scandinavian Star and Estonia disasters inspired their Scandinavian counterparts to reform ferry safety, the disastrous sinking of the Eastern Star in China and the Princess of the Stars in the Philippines seem to have awakened the governments of those countries to their serious ferry safety problems.

The sinking of the Princess of the Stars in the Philippines generated a will for reform in the Philippines Government. Photo: US Navy

Both governments thereby gained the will to seriously, practically and very rigorously tackle those problems. A combination of sensible regulation and rigorous enforcement has led to dramatic improvements. The Chinese and Filipinos have proved that real safety improvement is readily and quickly achievable.

Simple, sensible reforms are the key

Last year’s two FerrySafe missions to the Philippines, of which I was a member, were supported by Interferry and the Lloyd’s Register Foundation. They quickly discovered how and why the Philippines reforms had been so successful.

Further, participation by FerrySafe in the 2017, 2018 and 2019 ARF Workshops in Guangzhou, organised by the China Maritime Safety Administration, revealed more. Essentially, it quickly became obvious, that good ferry safety is ensured by willing governments regulating sensibly and enforcing those regulations very rigorously.

Key Philippines ferry safety improvements

  • Government appreciation of the problem and development of the will to reform;
  • Maritime Industry Authority (MARINA)-mandated and Philippine Coast Guard (PCG)-enforced “no sail” policy prohibiting sailing into bad weather;
  • Insurers became seriously involved with ensuring higher standards of vessels, their maintenance and operation;
  • Rigorous PCG and port authority enforcement of loading controls;
  • Phasing out of wooden vessels;
  • Banning imports of unsafe vessels; and
  • Compulsory fitting of approved life saving equipment.

All are simple, effective and enforceable improvements.

Government will to reform is imperative

FerrySafe’s work in China and the Philippines and our analysis of the Bangladeshi data make it very clear that reform will not occur without a very strong national government will to achieve it. Where that government will is absent, little will be achieved by the local ferry industry or its insurers.

Even the good example of safe, high quality local ferry operators is insufficient to achieve reform of the wider local industry. Strong national government leadership and will to reform is imperative.

Clearly, that all-important government will to reform ferry safety is still absent from countries such as Indonesia, India, Myanmar, Malaysia and Thailand. That is very disappointing.

Other Asia/Pacific nations can readily follow the examples of China, the Philippines and Bangladesh

  • China and the Philippines have shown the way;
  • Their improvement techniques are not secret;
  • Basically, they require strong government leadership;
  • Both the Philippines and China, particularly, have that and are ready to help other nations;
  • It is gratifying to learn that the International Maritime Organisation (IMO), through its Maritime Safety Committee (MSC), is now taking the problem of domestic ferry safety very seriously after ignoring it until recently;
  • IMO’s strong support should hasten ferry safety reform; and
  • We have improved rapidly but there is still a long way to go.
A typical example of a modern, fast, Australian-designed ferry from Chinese builder Jianglong Shipbuilding. Large numbers of these are being built and are now operating in China.

The domestic ferry fatality problem is curable

The ingredients of good ferry safety are obvious. First, it requires the national government will to encourage good safe behaviour.

Industry must realise that safe ferries are profitable ferries. Government should encourage the ferry industry to purchase and operate safe, modern, well-equipped ferries. Then ferry fatalities can be significantly reduced, if not eliminated.

More stories from the current Passenger Vessel Week here

Neil Baird

Co-founder and former Editor-in-Chief of Baird Maritime and Work Boat World magazine, Neil has travelled the length and breadth of this planet in over 40 years in the business. He knows the global work boat industry better than anyone.