A shipping firm has shown interest in a proposal made by Democratic Progressive Party Legislator Hsiao Bi-khim (蕭美琴) to establish a ferry line serving the country’s east coast to solve the decades-long transportation issue that plagues the region. However, it said that help from the government was needed to turn the idea into reality.
“This ship is probably the most advanced passenger ferry in the country, and could serve as a great substitute for the winding and often crowded Suhua Highway [from Suao (蘇澳), Ilan County to Hualien County] and the limited number of seats in airplanes or trains during peak periods,” said David Chiang (蔣元贊), captain of the passenger ferry Natchan Rera that Uni-Wagon Marine Co Ltd recently acquired from Japan, as he led a group of journalists and Hsiao on a tour of the ship.
Chiang said the ship is capable of carrying 800 passengers, 198 cars and 29 buses — or 350 cars without buses — at once.
“When sea and weather conditions allow, the ship can travel as fast as 45 nautical miles an hour [83kph], making the transit time from Suao to Hualien as short as one-and-a-half hours,” Chiang said. “With the best weather conditions, it would take just three hours to go from Keelung to Hualien.”
Although the shipping firm acquired the ship to serve a cross-strait ferry route, Hsiao said that it is the type of ship she had in mind when she proposed the idea.
“Transportation is a pain for residents of Hualien as well as visitors to the area, especially during peak periods such as the Lunar New Year holidays. The Suhua Highway is sometimes closed off due to bad weather, and flight and train tickets are hard to get,” Hsiao said. “People in the country’s east coast deserve a safe way to get home — and a sea transportation could be the answer.”
She added that traveling on the sea could also be a draw for tourists, as the cliff and the mountains on the east coast are spectacular when seen from the sea.
“Besides, it could save a lot of trouble for tourists if they could bring their own cars with them when they take the ferry to Hualien,” Hsiao said.
The shipping company also showed interest in the proposal.
“My company and myself both think this is a great idea, but there are some problems that must be overcome before the idea can be realized,” the captain said.
He gave as an example the about NT$100,000 an hour cost of running the ship, which consumes about 6,000 liters of premium grade diesel fuel.
“If the fare truly reflects the cost, it would be too high for ordinary passengers, but if we lower the ticket price, the company would be losing money,” Chiang said. “If the government would provide some financial support, then we would be able to provide the service at a reasonable cost.”
“I think investing in a sea lane transportation route may be much more cost effective than upgrading the Suhua Highway or building a freeway for the east coast,” Hsiao said. “It costs much less than a freeway or high-speed rail.”
Ecologists have other concerns.
“We support the idea of creating a sea lane transportation route along the east coast, but we want to make a reminder about the impact it could have on the environment,” Kuroshio Ocean Education Foundation chairwoman Martida Yeh (葉玿伶) said. “One direct impact is that the high-speed ferry could hit whales and dolphins, large numbers of which populate the east coast.”
Yeh said that curious whales and dolphins are sometimes enticed to approach when they hear a noise.
“Since the ship travels at such high speed, animals may not have enough time to swim away from it,” Yeh said.
While direct hits can be avoided with the use of technology and caution on the crew’s part, Yeh said she was more worried about indirect impacts.
“When whales and dolphins are disturbed by ships passing frequently, they may move away from the area,” Yeh said. “If the top consumers in the east coast food chain move away, it would devastate the ecosystem.”
Hsiao and Uni-Wagon general manager Tiger Yang (楊許虎) said that they are aware of potential environmental problems, which Yang promised to find solutions to if the company does end up running the ferry line.