By Hamdan Ismail
KUCHING, Jan 6 -- “We will cross the bridge when we come to it” figuratively means not worrying about something that might happen until it actually does happen.
Taken literally, and with the Batang Lupar in mind, we can only come to it in five years. That’s when the 7-km-long bridge spanning this massive river is expected to be completed.
Until then, the Triso ferry service across this river will remain as a vital link of the Sarawak second trunk road, commonly referred to as the coastal road by the local people.
And, every measure already in place and to be added on must be strictly enforced and complied with to prevent any recurrence of the New Year’s Day tragedy of nine lives lost when a pickup truck rolled off from the Triso ferry point ramp into the river at the northern bank of the Batang Lupar.
Expecting the ferry users to manage their own safety is something easier said than done. Not all the 2.8 million people of Sarawak have been trained in the safety aspects, especially when boarding or alighting from a ferry or during the journey, as the Jan 1 tragedy has amplified.
Nevertheless, the Jan 4 announcement by Sarawak Assistant Minister for Infrastructure and Port Development Datuk Julaihi Narawi is welcome news indeed.
After chairing a meeting on enhancing safety measures at the 12 ferry points in the state with the Sarawak Public Works Department (JKR), Sarawak Rivers Board and ferry operators, he said:
* a JKR officer will be stationed at every ferry point to monitor daily ferry operations.
* only the driver will remain in the vehicle on the ferry while passengers have to alight and be seated in a special area.
* every ferry passenger will be provided with a life jacket which must be worn on board.
He also said that all the SOP in place will be tightened to improve the safety of ferry passengers and, in two weeks’ time, JKR will conduct checks at the ferry points to ensure compliance with these rules.
A check by Bernama found that passengers throw caution to the wind. There are life jackets on board the ferries, all in sealed plastic bags, but none of the passengers wear them. The ferry operators also do not insist that the passengers wear them.
Perhaps the relevant authorities should consider conducting an audit of the safety measures implemented or carry out a simulation exercise to check on the effectiveness of the measures.
It will be worth considering training the local people residing close to the ferry points on how to handle a crisis situation, given that the nearest rescue professionals can be almost 100km away and will take about two hours to arrive after notification.
Travel on ferries operating in Sarawak is not as comfortable as on ferries in Penang or Langkawi. Those who have travelled on the Triso ferry may have found it similar to being on a landing craft used by soldiers during World War II, as seen in movies or documentaries.
Passengers may have to tread warily when leaving their parked vehicles on board the ferry lest they miss a step on the sometimes slippery floor, and they should least expect comfortable seats as the vessels have only wooden benches.
There are barely enough benches for all the passengers. Some will still have to stand outside their vehicles. In the case of the Triso ferry, passengers will have to stand if all the wooden benches are taken up, enduring the heat or rain for almost an hour until the ferry reaches the other bank.
Perhaps comfort is secondary to the urgent need to get across the river and save on time as well. Complaints are almost unheard of because since 2014, due to heavy government subsidy, the charge on public ferries for each vehicle is just RM1, without any fare for passengers.
Measures to ensure greater comfort and safety entail an additional cost but whether the passengers are willing to pay a higher rate or how much more is another matter altogether.
A day after the Triso tragedy, Sarawak Deputy Chief Minister Tan Sri Dr James Jemut Masing went to the location, announced measures to prevent a recurrence of such an incident and said construction has begun on the Batang Lupar Bridge, potentially Malaysia’s longest river bridge, that is to be completed in five years.
He also said that the state government plans to build bridges at all places where ferry services are provided to get across the major rivers.
Until then, services such as the Triso ferry will prevail, for a journey on the coastal road between Kuching and Sibu will be much shorter and quicker.
Most travellers - in an average of 48,000 vehicles per month - prefer to use this second trunk road that passes through the coastal villages in three divisions and, of course, boarding the Triso ferry to continue their journey.
A five-year wait may not be too long for the Batang Lupar Bridge - a bridge not too far.
Malaysian National News Agency
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