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ferry island

Transforming ferry safety in the Philippines


As an archipelago with 7,461 islands, the Philippines is absolutely dependent on ferries as a mode of transport. Every day people rely on boats to travel between islands, crossing volatile seas that are often rocked by storms and typhoons. The vessels vary in size from small motorised outriggers known as motor bancas to roll-on, roll-off car ferries, vast passenger ships to state-of-the-art high-speed catamarans. The ferry fleet in the Philippines spans several generations of development.

Until recently, ferry travel in the Philippines was not only an intrinsic part of daily life but the most dangerous on the planet. But since 2016 the island nation has achieved a pronounced turnaround in safety statistics – from the world’s worst, to close to the global average. Lloyd’s Register Foundation has been working with the industry body, Interferry, to find out why.

The Ferrysafe project, designed to learn lessons from the Philippines’ ongoing transformation of its ferry industry, will also share it with other developing countries. This will particularly help the five south-east Asian nations that account for over half the world’s 2,000+ annual toll of ferry fatalities. Work began after the 2016 Interferry conference in Manila, where the membership decided to further the organisation’s work on ferry safety, beginning in SE Asia.

Johann Roos of Interferry explains: “After decades of poor safety for domestic ferry operations, the Philippines have made a strong improvement since the turn of the century. We needed to find out which of the measures taken have been the most efficient and successful and could potentially be exported to other countries with high levels of ferry fatalities.”

The Foundation grant has enabled a team of Interferry experts to undertake a scoping study in the Philippines, to identify which measures have been most helpful in strengthening safety in its domestic ferry industry. The team began by reaching out to ferry owners, crews, port authorities and a range of others involved with the Philippines’ ferry industry. They also forged links with the region’s maritime powerhouse, China. The Chinese shipping industry is strongly supporting greater industry and government cooperation on ferry safety.

The team made several week-long visits to the Philippines, both to the capital, Manila and the centre of the ferry industry, Cebu. Their findings suggest there’s no ‘silver bullet’ to explain the safety improvement in ferry travel in the Philippines. However, a number of factors stood out:

  • Government willingness to facilitate change
  • The development of reasonably stringent regulations
  • Weather-dependent prohibition of sailing permits (no-sail policy)
  • The presence of local enforcement personnel
  • The importance of insurance and insurance surveys.

“We know which regulatory mechanisms are needed to make ferries safer. The problem is that many countries in the region haven’t been able to afford them,” adds Johan.

There is still a way to go for the Philippines’ ferry industry to become safe. While ferry travel in developed countries is subject to consistent safety standards, the Ferrysafe project found a huge range in the Philippines from the worst to the best performers. At the top end of the scale are modern ferries whose standards of compliance and safety would not be out of place in Europe. At the lower end of the scale are a considerable number of poorly maintained, sub-standard ferries which continue to operate, and whose owners may not have the financial resources to invest in safety equipment or to maintain the vessel properly.

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