Friday, 19 May 2017

Keeping Traditional Transport Alive

An iconic picture of the Star Ferry with Hong Kong Island in the distance
The tram and Star Ferry are iconic public transport in Hong Kong, and while tourists love to ride them and take photographs, and locals like the inexpensive fares, there are fewer and fewer young people willing to work in these two areas.

In the case of the Star Ferry, chief coxwain Chan Tsu-wing is 61 years old and has returned from retirement twice to help out the company.

Because he is the longest-serving employee, he has to manage subordinates, but he'd much rather be out in the water steering the ferry back and forth between Hong Kong Island and Kowloon.

Chief coxwain Chan Tsu-wing at the helm of the Star Ferry
"If we want to protect this cultural symbol of Hong Kong, we have to have successors," he says. "Fewer young people want to work in this field and we have no one to take our place. The most difficult thing for us is the lack of fresh talent. Nowadays, we would need to urge people to take license examinations. People today are not as hardworking as in the past."

While driving trams isn't as monotonous, as drivers need to keep a constant look out for pedestrians darting out into the street, while having to deal with all kinds of vehicles on the roads, not many young people are interested in this job either, preferring to work in an air conditioned office and make more money.

These jobs may seem monotonous, but imagine if Hong Kong didn't have the Star Ferry or trams anymore? That's why they need to be supported.

And this is where the Hong Kong government needs to step in. It should be subsidizing these two means of transport because they are a crucial part of the city's landscape.

Most people think it's easy to drive a tram -- think again
That way fares don't necessarily have to increase all the time, and people might have more incentive to appreciate them more. If people have decent salaries doing these jobs, then maybe they won't mind doing them so much?

Currently it's hard to find people willing to sit by the docks all day in all weather conditions to help dock and undock ferries, while tram drivers also have to deal with all kinds of weather conditions and mostly have to bundle up for winter, or sweat it out in the summer as most trams don't have air conditioning.

Ridership for both have dropped off considerably -- the Star Ferry when its Central location was moved several hundred metres away, and trams were hurt when three more stops on the MTR were added westward towards Kennedy Town.

Hong Kong and its people don't have enough appreciation for these old school means of transport. Will the government just let the companies kill off the trams and Star Ferries because one day they won't be feasible anymore?

"It is a pity that Hong Kong is not the sort of place that credits people for their knowledge and passion if it can't make money, says tram enthusiast Joseph Tse Yiu-hon, 36.

"Passengers are often happy with the low fare if HK$2.30 a ride and appreciate the fact that the century-old transport is still running on the streets, but it is easy to forget the faces of those who are actually continuing the legacy," he says.

The government should really look at subsidies to ensure the existence of these two means of public transport keep going well into the future.

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