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Thursday, October 28, 2010

Express boats a sunset industry?

Express boats berthed at Kapit Wharf Terminal

Chairman of Sarawak Express Boats Association (Third, Sixth and Seventh Division), Lau Hieng Choon recalled he was still skippering the traditional motor launch along the Sarikei route when the Kapit route was launched.

During those times, he said, the Kapit route was not as popular as the Sibu-Sarikei route as the logging industry had yet to gain traction.

Distance, lack of river transportation and various inconveniences could be the reason why the people shunned travelling to Kapit back then.

In comparison, the Sibu-Sarikei route was more popular due partly to the poor road condition between Sibu and Sarikei.

On the Kapit trip, Lau recalled he once took a 6.30am express boat and only arrived in Kapit at 7.30pm.

It was almost a day trip but Lau said nothing could be done about it as the express boats back then used the 216hp engine that produced only 20 per cent of the power generated by modern-day engines of more than 1000hp.

“Today, it takes only about three hours to reach Kapit, depending on passenger load and the water flow. If there were fewer passengers and the current favoured the express boats, the journey would be faster.”

By the 1970’s and 1980’s, Lau said the logging industry had mushroomed along the Rajang River and that directly pushed up the demand for more travelling schedules, hence the need for more express boats.

Within a few years, popularity of the Sibu-Kapit route spiralled, so much so that the express boat industry became an instant hit.

At its peak, Lau recalled, there were more than 150 express boats plying the Rajang River, covering routes to Sarikei, Meradong and Kapit. For the Sibu-Sarikei route alone, there were more than 50 boats in operation, he added.

“Everyone jumped on the bandwagon, hoping for a windfall. It was the talk of the town and during those days, it was one of the most popular industry,” he told thesundaypost.

By the 1990’s, improved road accessibility between Sibu and Sarikei had a protracted impact on river transport between Sibu and Sarikei.

“It was like a domino effect. Naturally, with improved road accessibility between Sibu and Sarikei, few people took the trouble to use express boats as they could conveniently use road transport which was a much better alternative.

”Express boats operators plying the Sibu-Sarikei routes had to pay a heavy price for development after road transport between Sibu and Sarikei became easily accessible.

As a cost-saving measure, Lau said express boat operators had no choice but to phase out the Sibu-Sarikei route by 1996.

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