Hong Kong’s so-called “water taxi” carried fewer passengers than just one East Rail Line train in its first six months of operation, according to Finance Committee papers to be discussed next week.
The weekly service, run by a state-owned Chu Kong Shipping (CKS), attracted just 3,569 passengers from 1 July 2021 to the end of the year, says the government in response to questions by lawmaker Chan Han-pan.
The M+ route was planned to run twice a week, but was “temporarily suspended” in January 2022 “in light of social-distancing measures,” says the government. The Tsim Sha Tsui East stop was suspended in February 2022 for the same reasons.
In answering Chan’s questions to the Finance Committee, the government says the Water Taxi Ferry Service (WTFS) was run with just 12 CKS staff, most of whom were “redeployed from other inner harbour routes run by the same operator”.
The government says CKS has been subsidised with free pier rental, free vessel licensing and is allowed to earn income from sub-letting its pier space.
Under the Anti-Epidemic Fund, “the operator of WTFS is [also] entitled to receive a 40% subsidy on fuel costs for a period of five months and a one-off non-accountable subsidy of $30,000 per vessel,” says the government.
The water taxi was widely criticised upon its launch, with many transport figures and potential passengers asking how a once-weekly fixed service could be considered a “taxi”.
In 2020, Paul Zimmerman, CEO of Designing Hong Kong and vice-chair of the Southern District Council, said the service was “ridiculous” and simply “an expensive ferry”.
Zimmerman had several years earlier proposed a new water taxi approach based around the chartered kai tos that ply Hong Kong’s ship anchorages, typhoon shelters and piers.
There’s 72 recognised kai to routes in the city, but support is poor – the government recently said kai to operators “are mainly self-employed” small businesses and “to safeguard the proper use of public money” it wouldn’t be giving any meaningful subsidy.
Industry observers noted the government had, at the same time, given tenants of PMQ, Carrie Lam’s flagship luxury mall, $14 million in rent subsidies precisely because those tenants were “mainly startup entrepreneurs” in need of support.
The water taxi subsidy and finance issue will be discussed in the Finance Committee meeting on 11 April.