Demerara River crossing now completely in private hands
-regulation, safety still key issues
By Oscar P. Clarke
July 29, 2004
A tide of problems has brought an end to the 70-year state ferry service on the Demerara River and while the crossing is now entirely in the hands of private operators, regulation and safety are still key issues.
Declining revenues, slow moving vessels and a frequently silted up shoreline were some of the factors which worked against the Transport and Harbours Department (T&HD) continuing its long-running ferry service cross the Demerara River.
The approximately 20-minute crossing from the Georgetown ferry stelling to the one at Vreed-en-Hoop on the West Bank of the Demerara River was formally ended approximately one year ago after more than seventy years of almost unbroken operation.
The writing was on the water for the T&HD service ever since traffic started to decline with the advent of the Demerara Harbour Bridge (DHB) in 1978. With vastly improved and reliable DHB service over the last decade or so, the scheduled ferry service began to see declines in revenues to such a point that it was being heavily subsidised.
It was these sustained heavy losses coupled with the entity's inability to easily hike the fare - then $30 - which led to a situation where T&HD's management could not continue sustain the operation, a source at the entity told this newspaper in an interview recently.
According to the source other factors which contributed to the ending of the long running service were heavy siltation of the river bank particularly at the Vreed-en-Hoop end. Other sources pointed to the fact that the vessel on most days would only ferry about five persons from one bank to the other.
The T&HD source said the severity of the silt build-up periodically caused damage to the T&HD vessel and necessitated expensive desilting.
The owners of the jet boat service "Whitewater Adventure Tours", which began offering service between the riverbanks just before the T&HD quit, are currently feeling the effects of this and other problems the source said.
Officials at Whitewater Adventure Tours who operate the ferry service as a joint venture with the T&HD acknowledged experiencing problems as a result of the general condition of the Demerara River. The official told Stabroek News that the operators of the boat are usually forced to stall service at least once per day for about half of an hour to clean debris from the jet propulsion to enable the craft to continue working.
Most of the debris this newspaper understands originates from the Stabroek Market wharf from where persons dump all types of matter into the waterway.
Stabroek News during a trip aboard the jet boat to the western bank saw the driver taking extra care in navigating the craft especially as it neared the Vreed-en-Hoop stelling.
There was also a noticeably high accumulation of deposit in the vicinity of the stelling and on the western shoreline, which seemed to extend the shoreline towards the river.
This, the source said, prompted the jet boat, as had been done during the time of the T&HD ferry service, to restrict its travel to the period when the tide is relatively high. The silted banks required regular dredging, according to the source, a very expensive undertaking and one which the department had been required to perform frequently to ensure that the ferry channel remained accessible.
At the time the T&HD vessel was pulled from service, adults were being charged a single trip fare of $30 with pensioners and employees being ferried free.
This price is far below that being charged for other forms of transport both by river and the DHB. Minibuses currently charge $200 per crossing with speedboats charging $60 and the jet boat $100.
The jet boat ferries pensioners and T&HD staff free of charge as part of an understanding between it and the T&HD to continue providing certain services that were offered by the department's ferry, the Whitewater official said.
The jet boat pays a daily undisclosed mooring fee to the T&HD for use of its wharf and has installed a floating ramp to facilitate passengers boarding and leaving the jet boat.
Prior to ceasing operations the T&HD was competing with what initially was an illegally operated speedboat service ferrying passengers from one bank to the other much quicker than the ferry service. Initially these small craft, which over time have grown in number and size used to decant passengers at an area behind the Stabroek Market requiring passengers to demonstrate great skill in getting from boat to landing.
Even these boats are now feeling the effects of competition albeit from fellow operators and minibuses, the T&HD source noted.
The smaller craft are ideally suited for journeys over such distances thus the attempts by the recently-formed Maritime Administration (MARAD) to regulate and monitor their service.
The smaller vessels however have to charge higher fares than those previously offered by the T&HD ferry to realise a satisfactory return on their investment.
It was the sources' opinion that the decision to discontinue the Demerara River ferry service had been 25 years late in coming.
Although the T&HD ferry service has been stopped the department continues to maintain a presence at both the Georgetown and Vreed-en-Hoop stellings which remain part of the entity's fixed assets.
The ferry terminals, the source said, are currently being kept functional as an emergency alternative in the event of mishaps at the DHB as had been the case particularly in the 80s and early 90s.
Currently the department earns revenue by renting space at its stelling berths to the numerous speedboat operators as well as the principals of the jet boat service whose ticketing booth is sited at the Georgetown Stelling.
Stabroek News understands that the fee paid per vessel to the T&HD is somewhere in the region of $500 per day which varies depending on the size and holding capacity of the vessel.
The size and carrying capacity of the speedboats vary from the small 17-seaters rising to those which carry as many as 56 passengers. The jet boat has a carrying capacity of 67 passengers and is covered to protect travellers from bad weather and water sprays. The majority of the speedboats only offer a movable leatherette cover held in place by passengers.
Initially the jet boat service when introduced was intended as a premium service to attract travellers crossing the river at night [between 7:00 pm and 12:00 midnight] after the speedboats had ceased operations. However with the decision to end the T&HD ferry service - likely influenced by the re-directing of the jet boat from a tourism operation to the Demerara run - the jet boat service now operates between 7 am and 7 pm.
The switch, he said, was due to limited traffic, as many persons were not keen on travelling at night as they were not fully aware of the vessel's safety features.
Many passengers due to the difference in prices opt for the cheaper speedboat once the weather is accommodating although the landing for that vessel is less safe than that for the jet boat.
T&HD officials at both stellings normally monitor the speedboat operations indicating which boats are next in line to load.
This was noticeable during visits to both the Georgetown and Vreed-en-Hoop stellings where T&HD personnel were seen regulating the order in which the river craft arrive at the respective berths and the order in which they should load.
A regular traveller on the speedboats recalled the early days during which they landed near the rocky wall at the back of the Stabroek Market and had to exercise their athletic skills to enter and leave the vessel. These concrete stairs have since been demolished as efforts to regulate the service developed.
Since those early days however over time the service was improved and accommodation was provided for the boats to land at the Georgetown ferry stelling by use of wooden stairways.
Although this is the situation that obtains up to today the current state of the stairway leaves much to be desired as opposed to the iron pontoon moorings for the jet boat service.
The jet boat however moors at the Vreed-en-Hoop stelling gangway while the speedboats use a separate landing constructed at the side of that stelling, as is the case at the Georgetown end.
This newspaper observed a loaded jet boat arriving at its Georgetown mooring. According to the commuter who resides on the West Coast Demerara the jet boat service is normally overcrowded especially on rainy days when there is need for covered surroundings for the river journey.
A recent letter writer to this newspaper made similar claims saying that some of the travellers do not wear life-jackets as is mandated under regulations for travel in such craft.
The letter said among other things that seats designed to accommodate two passengers carry three instead with passengers being allowed to stand in the narrow passageway between the two rows of seats.
During this newspaper's trip across the Demerara River with the jet boat service it was observed that apart from carrying more passengers than it is registered to load, passengers were not obliged to wear life-jackets with which the vessel is equipped.
As stated by the letter writer each of the two seats on the sides of the aisle was accommodating three passengers and this newspaper's reporter and photographer had to make do with the limited standing room in the narrow aisle.
However, the Whitewater official said that due to numerous safety features on the vessel, which is US Coast Guard and Guyana Coast Guard certified, the wearing of life-jackets is optional as opposed to the speedboats where passengers are all required to wear them. A full complement of life-jackets is available on the jet boat.
Overloading is avoided by means of a head count though it is clearly not always enforced.
The Whitewater official further indicated that the jet boat is the only craft operating with substantial passengers liability insurance, which he recommends should be available on all vessels ferrying passengers.
The Whitewater official was expressed concern about the practice by the speedboat of carrying toddlers on the laps of parents or guardians for whom they provide no life-jackets since they are not fare-paying passengers.
This reporter on the return leg from Vreed-en-Hoop was falsely told that the jet boat on which the reporter had previously crossed would not be returning due to some problem and was charged $100 by a 17-seater speedboat. There seems to be an ad hoc arrangement for sharing passengers between the jet boat and speedboats which is facilitated by the T&HD officials.
The $100 fare seemed to be in contravention of a sign displayed on a fence at the Vreed-en-Hoop end saying that as of June 1, all fares would be raised to $60.
However this newspaper was informed that the difference in price between some speedboats was due to their carrying capacity. The trip which was a few minutes slower than the jet boat [four minutes] required passengers to cover themselves against the sprays from choppy waters with leatherette provided by the operators.
Commuters say that most persons opt to travel by minibus via the DHB once the speedboats cease working at 6 pm daily.
The Whitewater official said that the service after a year in operation has remained at a constant level although he acknowledged that things have been progressing smoothly.