An air ferry for Penang


With two bridges linking Penang’s island and mainland, Chief Minister Lim Guan Eng now looks towards an aerial connection to stitch more tightly the state’s two halves together.

The announcement, in all honesty, came as a surprise. With work on an RM6.3bil undersea tunnel slated to begin next year, few were expecting news on any further links between Penang’s island and mainland. So, understandably, the disclosure of quiet, ongoing discussions between the state government and Penang Sentral – the upcoming central integrated transport hub under the Northern Corridor Economic Region (NCER) – in mid-April created waves all over the state.

The idea of the Penang Sky Cab, in principle, is simple: gondolas, linked by nine galvanised steel towers, ferrying passengers across the 3km distance between Butterworth on the mainland and Gat Lebuh Noordin on the island. At maximum capacity, the aerial link will be able to transport 2,000 passengers per hour, with the journey taking roughly 15 minutes in total.

Targeted for completion in 2018, the project is estimated to cost between RM250mil and RM300mil, which includes the construction of an observation tower above the North Channel.

Not everyone is on board, however. Concerns raised about the project include the argument that it is an impractical transport solution with poor potential for addressing the rising traffic congestion in the state. Chief Minister Lim Guan Eng, nevertheless, is forging forward, insisting that more transport alternatives are essential in bridging the gap between Penang’s two halves.

“We must have three links,” he tells Penang Monthly. “The undersea tunnel will only be completed in 2025 to 2027. Currently for Central Seberang Prai, we have the first Penang Bridge and in South Seberang Prai, the Sultan Abdul Halim Mu'adzam Shah Bridge, but in North Seberang Prai, we don’t have anything.

“We have the ferry service, but it is wrought with problems – it breaks down often and is rarely upgraded. If there is an alternative to that, people will love the choice.”

Enter Penang Sentral

Stressing that a viable transport alternative is needed in the state’s northern sections as soon as possible, Lim says the building of Penang Sentral was the vital link in the Penang Sky Cab proposal. “When Penang Sentral commenced work last year, it became possible for us to have a landing point there. It actually cannot be any other place because this is the northern corridor transport hub for Malaysia’s whole northern region that covers Perlis, Kedah, Penang and northern Perak.

“With the Sky Cab, it becomes a five-inone hub – bus, taxi, water, rail and, now, sky. Penang Sentral getting off the ground was the conditional precedent. It has to be there, or it won’t work.”

Linking up with Penang Sentral will take care of the connectivity and mobility of passengers who disembark in Butterworth, but operations on the island side pose greater challenges. Unlike with the ferry and bridge services, those landing at Gat Lebuh Noordin will need to rely entirely on existing public transport systems to enable them to arrive at their final destinations.

Satellite view of proposed cable car route.

Lim describes the situation as one of “chicken and egg” but remains confident that more buses and taxis can be sought, as long as there is a passenger demand for them. “Public transport has to be linked up for this to work. The ridership of Rapid Penang is currently low – about six to eight per cent. But it’s a chicken and egg situation: you need to increase more buses and following that, there’s more connectivity which will, in turn, increase ridership. Being the northern corridor transport hub, Penang Sentral will be vital in addressing the connectivity and coordination of all these transport links.”

Describing the project to be in the “advanced exploratory stages”, he adds that the financial architecture of Penang Sky Cab is still being worked out between Penang Sentral and the state, with the latter hoping that the aerial interface will be ultimately entirely owned and run by the integrated transport hub.

Dual functions

Revealing that the idea of the aerial link was mooted late last year, Lim says the aim of the project is to create a tourism-driven product that has a dual-role of also being a soft mode of public transport for local Penangites. “We need to have a direct link which is the underground sea-way tunnel, but that is only in 2027. What we need now is a medium-term, transitional alternative which can be ready in 2018. So if the ferry breaks down, we have an alternative. The people need choices and that is what we are trying to provide.”

Likening the Penang Sky Cab to London’s Emirates Air Line (also known as the London Cable Car), Lim says it is possible to have a tourist attraction that also appeals to the everyday public. “The (1.1km) Emirates Air Line links the Royal Docks to the Greenwich Peninsula over the River Thames. It was originally a tourism product that is now an alternative public transport choice. We are hoping the Penang cable car can turn out like that, but even if it doesn’t, it is still a tourism product for the state.”

Alignment options.

On the potential tourism attraction of the project, Lim believes that the sky link will draw visitors by offering a sky-view of the state. “The romance of Penang can go a long way and the Sky Cab will complement what Penang already has,” he says, adding that the minimal environmental footprint of the project is also a boon for the state. “On the mainland side, the station will be linked up with Penang Sentral. On the island, all we need is about 1.6ha to build the station and car park.

“We don’t think any reclamation will be needed, or at the very most, it will be minimal.”

Uniting the halves

With the majority of Penang’s tourism attractions centred on the island, Lim acknowledges that ridership of the Penang Sky Cab may be initially lopsided, recording more island-bound passengers than those heading to the mainland. He is, however, optimistic that this will even out in the future.

“We have to start somewhere. I believe that Seberang Prai has a lot to offer. There are exciting things planned there, starting with the Butterworth Fringe Festival. There is no reason that the mainland cannot act as another centre for tourism products, events and experiences.”

Adding to this vision, Lim says the goal is to create a symbiotic relationship between island and mainland. “We envision it to be like Kowloon and Hong Kong. The Sky Cab route may be more popular one-way at first, but then it will equalise and symbiosis will emerge,” he says, adding that the development of Batu Kawan would serve to cement Seberang Prai as an emerging destination of choice.

Fundamentally, states like Penang that have physically separated parts need increased connectivity to develop as a whole. Following this line of thinking, Lim stresses that the more links there are between the island and mainland, the better.

“We have two halves of the state. If you have three links, you are able to bring the two halves together. Penang should be considered as one – a unitary state of two halves where you have balanced and inclusive development on both sides.

“With greater connectivity and convenience, you will have seamless communication and it will no longer matter if you are on the island or mainland; it will be the same.”

Andrea Filmer is a freelance journalist who has lived in the US and Australia but, for reasons unknown to herself, finds it impossible to call anywhere but Penang (Island) home.

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