Viewpoint: Focusing on international ferry safety

Roberta Weisbrod, executive director of the Worldwide Ferry Safety Association, explains why now is the right time for the industry to improve ferry safety

Viewpoint: Focusing on international ferry safety

As the world becomes increasingly urbanised, the population skyrockets, economic activity grows and people across the globe continue to become more mobile, congestion will increase and ferries will become more popular. In cities on the water in both the developed and the developing world, the ferry sector is poised for growth and change. Over the coming years, more ferries will be built and deployed with a major emphasis on how technology can be used to ensure the well-being and safety of passengers.

New ferries are already being constructed around the world. Recently, New York City’s mayor revealed plans to expand routes for a private ferry service, with public funding available for both capital expenditures and subsidies. This rush towards ferry transport will build on the success of the popular East River Ferry, open up isolated waterfront areas to housingand allow new waterfront housing to be connected to the central business districts and other waterfront areas. The mayor’s proposal is concrete and actionable, while specified routes and a timetable for service rollout has already been set out. The first procurement call is set to take place in a few months.

In addition, Canadian operator BC Ferries has ordered three LNG ferries from Poland’s Remontowa Shipbuilding. Other operators have ordered LNG ferries for use in Sweden, Australia, the Baltic between Estonia and Finland, and, among other places, on New York City’s Staten Island ferry line.

As exciting as this is, it is in the growing cities of the developing world emerging markets that there is a new trend toward intra-urban ferries similar to New York City’s East River Ferry, connecting outlying waterfront areas with a central business district.

Take for example, the thriving mega cities of Manila in the Philippines, Lagos in Nigeria and Dhaka in Bangladesh. Manila has long been the hub of the Philippines inter-island ferry service and is now expanding its intra-urban ferry system on the Pasig River. This project will relieve the congestion endured by the 12 million people who live and work in one of the densest places on earth.

Dhaka, the capital of Bangladesh and home to 17 million people, is a major destination for the thousands of ferries that ply more than 250 named rivers on the delta of the Ganges River system. The city has planned to develop a circular canal ferry and freight ferry system to help relieve congestion.

More than 21 million residents of fast-growing Lagos also battle multi-hour commutes from the coastal regions to reach the island business district of Lagos. Although ferries are clearly the answer and lines have been proposed, they have not yet been realised for a variety of reasons.

Meanwhile, major ferry companies have started to design and build quality ferries for the developing world with recent announcements about ferries for American Samoa (to be built by Nichols brothers) and for Lake Malawi (to be built by Damen). Several of the European ferry companies that are planning to enter the developing world market will participate in the Ferry Safety & Technology conference in New York City this April.

Increasingly, more attention is being paid to safety in the developing world. The industry, regulatory groups and the general public are beginning to recognise that fatalities are not an inevitability of water transport, thanks to the media attention on last year’s Sewol disaster and other high-profile tragedies. Citizens within affected nations are also beginning to make themselves felt as a potent force for change.

Powerful branches of the international maritime community support the safety agenda. Interferry and the International Maritime Organization (IMO) have pursued an aggressive Ferry Safety Project for nearly the past decade. Working with Bangladesh as the pilot nation, the project has achieved some modest successes in the areas of training and data management. Subsequently, the IMO has hosted Ferry Safety Information Sharing Forums in Indonesia, Fiji, and China. Recently, the association’s secretary general Koji Sekimizu emphasised that action must be taken to improve the safety standards on passenger ferries following the fatal fire on the Norman Atlantic and the loss of lives on Sewol, which sank in South Korea last year. Sekimizu will convene a major conference on the safety of domestic passenger ships to be held in Manila at the end of April. Interferry has also continued to support developing world ferry safety in its annual meeting by hosting sessions on the topic.

International attention is also being brought to bear beyond the maritime sector. I support a high-level advisory group, which has been convened by the UN Secretary General to focus on sustainable transport and formulate international policy guidance. It interacts with numerous other international public and private organisations and the ferry sector is represented by Interferry’s Len Roueche.

One of the most critical ongoing international efforts that has the potential to significantly improve ferry safety is the Multilateral Development Bank (MLDB) Fund for Sustainable Transport in the Developing World. This ten-year effort has US$175 billion in funds and is currently in its third year. The MLDB consists of eight development banks, including the World Bank, the Asian Development Bank, and the African Development Bank. Currently the fund supports requests from the developing nations themselves.

If a relatively small portion of the MLDB fund could be set aside for needed projects that support all developing nations, not just individual countries, it could have a profound impact around the world. These needs are mirrored in the topics that will be discussed at our Ferry Safety & Technology Conference sessions this March. Several ideas stand out for immediate development.

For example, the development banks group would do well to underwrite high-level weather monitoring and communications, especially in the world’s weather hotspot in South and Southeast Asia and the Pacific and Indian Oceans. Not coincidentally, the region is also a ferry fatality hotspot as well. In fact, based on ferry fatality statistics collected by WFSA, 54% of fatalities have a weather-related cause.

Another role for the multilateral development banks would be to fund training. From the recent Atlantic Norman fire to the Sewol incident, virtually all ferry disasters have been explained with the refrain ‘the crew didn’t know what to do’.

Finally, in view of the fact that people cannot manage what they do not know, the banks should fund capacity building for maritime casualty investigations and making the existing reports accessible to the national and international communities. The reports can be an invaluable teaching tool for future captains and crew members, one that can lead to profound social change.

As seen above, the multi-national international organisations are certainly engaged. What is lacking is the engagement of the international philanthropic community, including the influential Bill Gates, Bill Clinton, Jeffrey Skoll, George Soros, and Rockefeller Foundations.

The lesson from human history is that technology leads to social change. The pace of technological development in our time has been staggering – from 3D printing, to nanotechnology, to new alloys and material mixes, to communications. Ferry safety can be transformed by emerging technologies in vessel design and construction; weather monitoring and dissemination; e-training and training management; and advanced communications. Panels and hands-on demonstrations at our Ferry Safety & Technology conference will incorporate new and emerging technologies that will lead to safer vessels.

Roberta Weisbrod is the executive director of the Worldwide Ferry Safety Association

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