Magnetic Island North Queensland
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A young koala's beach adventure

September 8th 2006
Sunferries responds to critics

Boarding the ferry Following a letter of complaint about Sunferries' safety, service and cost issues, "A letter about the ferries" on September 7 which has also been sent to the Minister for Transport and candidates for tomorrow's election, Sunferries General Manager, Mr Mark McKeon, has made a feisty response.

Mark McKeon writes:
I have looked over the complaints and a great deal of it does not make any sense. At no stage did the authors of this letter come to me, write or ring to let us know there were any issues. They have instead hidden behind a vexatious letter sent directly to the minister.

While it is easy to single out events to make it sound terrible, on the whole our service runs to the schedule, and as close to the time as we can.

I acknowledge we are not 100% all the time but our crews do work as hard as they can to achieve our services.

I will investigate any issues raised regarding the loading of a person with a broken foot but offer the following observations:

I have adjusted a number of extra services to help with what we term as a hot spot. When possible the new "1530" service takes as many people that are standing ready to go to the island. (Including the kids) The next service is 15:45. The 1530 becomes the 16:10 off then island for all to use but by in large we hope most of the workers get onto it.

We do try and match the ferry to the service (in other words Spirit on 1530 that can carry 400) however due to planned maintenance etc this is not always possible.

We do not overload, it is illegal. The current seating configurations are not the best and when we get 200 on sunbird for example it does appear to be busy. Sunbird is licensed for 300. It is interesting to note that over an average Month, 40% of our numbers is less than 50 pax, while only 5% represent over 200 pax. Overloading is simply not occurring

About 18 Months ago, we did run a separate service for the kids however one of your island residents complained to the minister that it was discrimitory against adults so it was ceased (sometimes we can not win)

Our ferries are professionally cleaned every night, but once the workers have travelled back from the Island, it can get a bit second hand. When the new ferries arrive, I am going to enact a dress code about cleanliness (just so I can answer more complaints to you!!!) I am much exited about the new ferries I can tell you.

It is important to note that I made a conscious decision not to raise fares for a full 12 Months. I lived by this commitment despite loosing many thousands of dollars due to fuel increases (AND BELIEVE ME IT HURT)

In finishing, many issues regarding mobility etc will be addressed when the terminal rebuild is complete and the new ferries are here (and yes we are planning arrival by Xmas).

I have just received a letter from the coordinator of Magnetic Island Community Care. She has offered some really good suggestions that we will explore but also includes "thanks for a great service"

Following, we have reproduced most of the letter and Mark McKeon's particular responses to points raised by the letter writers, Rosemary Crake & Robert Marshall. Rosemary and Robert's letter comments are preceded by "RR" while Mark Mckeon's responses are in italics and preceded by "MM". Ed.

RR: Dear Mr Lucas

I would like to bring some issues to your attention which I believe are relevant to your consideration of Sunferries' proposed fare increases and applications by other companies to provide a passenger service.

The current service has significant safety issues on busy ferries, particularly the 7-50 am (Magnetic Island) and 3-45 pm (Townsville) services which are taken by school-children. These services, and often the 5-30pm (Townsville) service, are over-crowded. Adult passengers are standing while concession fare school-children sit.

Other children / adolescents who don't get a seat sit in groups, with their bags, in walkways. This is understandable as there is nowhere else for them to go and where handrails are provided, they are only accessible to taller people (which excludes many adults as well). In case of emergency, this situation could cause major problems.

The number of people catching the 7-50 am ferry has also recently been increased because tourists going on Sunferries' reef tour must generally now go into Townsville to catch the reef ferry (it used to pick them up at the island on the way to the reef).

Some seats in the ferry are unusable because they are broken or are wet from leaking air-conditioning. The island population is also increasing.

MM: Reef Cat has been picking up passengers from the Island for over a Month now. Clearly the Author is not aware of this. The ferries are never overloaded.

RR: Luggage check-in is not always available and backpackers generally bring their luggage on board with them (they are not discouraged from this). Safe areas to stow luggage and prams inside the ferries are very limited - therefore luggage and prams are often placed in walkways / exit paths. Whilst this is generally not a problem, it is a safety issue in case of emergency or of passengers being tripped up.

MM: Luggage check in is always available. Late running passengers tend to move down the gangways with their luggage. Mums and dad with prams will always be allowed onto the ferry. Some of our passengers prefer to keep their goods with them.

RR: It is also inappropriate safety and service-wise for any passenger to have to stand throughout the journey - a 25-30 minute journey by boat in often bumpy conditions is very different from a typical bus ride.

Ferries are often late due to inefficient boarding and luggage handling arrangements. When ferries break down or are running poorly, no courtesy of explanation or information is shown eg recently the old ferry appeared to be running on only one motor. Our journey was longer and slower than usual but no announcement was made about this).

MM: No answer here - what were the weather conditions? The ferries never run on one engine, may have just been a bad day for travel. What break downs?? Please provide the day, date and times as I am unaware.

Recently, two (I believe) ferries broke down so the Reef tour ferry was being used. I picked up two interstate visitors on Monday 28 August. One is elderly and the other has a back injury. I thought we would manage by using the baggage check-in service. However, on the busy 12-00 noon ferry, there was no baggage service. All passengers (including older and more frail individuals and those with walking sticks) were required to walk - and take their luggage - up stairs to get onto the ferry (no ramp). They then had to ascend (with luggage) very steep internal stairs to later disembark down a further set of steps.

MM: Reef Cat was used as the important thing is to keep the service going but I am unaware of luggage issues. I will question operations.

RR: An Island resident advised me that she was distressed last week to see another resident who has an injured ankle and is in a wheelchair, made to leave the wheelchair and literally crawl onto the ferry without assistance (the other resident was further back in the queue and could not get to her). That is disgusting in terms of safety, dignity and service.

MM: This resident advice is third hand information. Our crews always assist (we are required by law) but I will ask operations to investigate.

RR: The ferries are very well patronised and very poorly maintained so I find it hard to believe Sunferries can justify any cost increases. Increasing numbers of residents and construction workers must be adding to Sunferries' income. There are regular break-downs, seats are dirty and many are broken; the air-conditioning only works on cold days (if at all) and continually drips or pours water on hapless passengers. In warmer months, it is almost impossible to arrive at work looking professional.

The new(ish) ferries in the Whitsundays are already cheaper than the Magnetic Island service for people who work on the islands and commute regularly. They are also clean and in good working order.

MM: Not sure where this information came from. Travel in the Whitsunday's is expensive $76.00 return to Hamilton Island. What many resident fail to understand is that we offer very heavy discount tickets for bulk purchase (i.e. Flexi $76.00) meaning people can travel for $7.60 or $15.20 return. A walk up purchase is $25.00 so locals are able to grab a 40% discount. So while numbers may be up, yield actually comes down Tell me where on the Island there is an offer of 40% discount for the residents.

If Sunferries will not provide extra services to cope with peak hour demands (eg an extra ferry between 7.30am and 8.30am or a specific "school ferry", as I believe there used to be; plus an extra ferry in the afternoon, perhaps at 4.30pm or 4.40pm a "return" from the extra ferry they recently put on for the construction workers on the island; or perhaps 6.30), then I believe other companies should be able to offer an extra service, with comparable multi-use tickets, during peak hours and peak season. This is important for both residents and tourists.

MM: We do provide extra services and there are simply no overloading situations at the present moment. We have added extra services to the service already in the afternoon (15:30 and 16:10) and run back ups if required. About two years ago Sunferries did run a sperate service for school kids however an island resident complained that it was discrimination against adults so the service was ceased (sometime you can not win)

RR: Apart from safety concerns, I think every adult who has to stand while concession fare youth sit, should be given a refund on their ticket.

MM: What, kids are paying their legal fare and are entitled to a seat. (Manners and morals are a different matter)

RR: I am led to believe that increased fares have been negotiated but implementation is being held back until after the election - this gives a clear message as to how Island residents should vote.

Some of the seats for passengers waiting outside the Townsville terminal building were removed during renovations and have not been replaced. Available seating is inadequate generally, but when the terminal is closed in the evening, it becomes more of a problem.

MM: We are still going through the rebuild so patience is required.

RR: I understand that Sunferries has to offer the less lucrative night services as part of their contract, so it is not fair to have general competition with companies who don't have to offer those services. However, the monopoly Sunferries has is clearly being abused and safety is suffering.

MM: What do they mean "abused"?? And, no, safety is not being compromised.

RR: Magnetic Island is an important tourist attraction which brings significant amounts of money to Townsville. The current state of the ferry "service" is likely to actively discourage tourists who are not young back-packers from coming to or returning to the Island and the area.

MM: Nonsense, How? Interestingly we never receive complaints from non residents. This includes the many thousand of local who do the day trip, surf life savers for their patrols, medical staff, police, youth travelling to full moons (less the occasional drug bust) etc.

To make a comment see below

Sunferries responds to critics
September 8th 2006
Pardon me if I don't break into tears. Rock on the bridge.
David J
September 11th 2006

Unfortunately for high profile non government essential service providers such as sunferries, there will always be those who have legitimate issues, those who have ridiculous ones and those who are not satisfied with services under any circumstances mixing legitimate complaints with vexatious ones. I note the manner and detail of your response, however I fear your efforts will not be rewarded in this approach to customer service complaints. Many customers look towards the way in which people/issues/complainants are treated by respondents to determine the overall professionalism of the company and to access whether the issues raised had any substance in the first place. I appreciate the efforts to which you have gone, however the assistance of a professional writer or public relations company in preparing your response would not have gone astray. An action plan to properly articulate issues with the removal of emotive language on both sides is essential. Then the real problem if in existence, and the efforts to solve them, will be one step in obtaining the confidence of those who may choose to complain or support you in the future. Regards David
September 13th 2006
Mark doubts that a wheelchair-using person was forced to crawl unassisted up the steps of Reef Cat? Dozens of waiting passengers saw this, including myself, and were appalled - myself especially as I also am disabled.
Fortunately I have enough strength in my arms to haul myself (unassisted as the steps are too narrow to allow for assistance, though none was actually offered)up the steps, as I cannot crawl - owing to severe arthritis in the knees. The only consolation for having to get up those very steep stairs to the top deck in order to get off the ferry was that for once I did not have that endless, painful uphill walk up the ramp at the other end.
Alas I weigh more than 20kg - otherwise I would seriously consider packing myself into a suitcase and making the trip that way. Our luggage has an easier trip than we do!
david J
September 16th 2006
Dear Jill. I have read Marks response to RR's comments regarding the incident your refer. No where in the reply is the suggestion that he 'doubts' what has been said. He does point out although that the information as relayed is third hand and that he has no report of it, and that he will investigate. You do however use the term 'wheelchair-using' person, which although not quite politically correct, does convey the perception that the person in question was known to you to be in someway permanently incapicatated and confined to a wheelchair for mobility reasons. Many challenged people in our community desire nothing more than to live a normal life, share the same problems and be considered in some way in terms of every day things such as access to facilities that many take for granted. The emotion of pity, although both a powerful motivator and inhibitor is something challenged people seldom desire, and although some aspects of their everyday life may make many in the community feel uncomfotable, for them it is their 'normal' way of life. The person in question has not come forward, has not raised a complaint, has not asked for anything more than any other paying passenger has asked. Perhaps they prefer it this way. Perhaps they understand the practicalities of living or accessing an island by 'unconventional' means. Perhaps they are happy for nothing more than that they actually can and do so in a way that makes them feel part of the community rather than someone on whom to shower pity. For all anyone knows perhaps the person requested those in attendance to put away their pity and let them get on with it. Be thankful that you still have enough strenght in your arms to haul yourself up narrow steps when you know that its obvious to all that nothing can be done to assit you with your obvious condition even though you still expect it. It is heartening to hear that the top deck is still accessible even by those members of the community with arthritic knees and who now fully appreciate the difficulties of access which some have suffered all their lives. Enjoy the island life while you are still able and not worry about those with ankle problems that will heal.

Regards David
David W Roberts
September 26th 2006
I have been watching the Information that is being passed back and forward by the abovementioned and various others over the past few weeks.

Whilst I agree that the letter written by Rosemary Crake and Robert Marshall should perhaps have been sent to the Sunferries Management for their comments before going public I can only say that I agree with most of the comments contained therein, I would also like to add my own piece of commentary

1.I have been traveling to and from magnetic Island on business and pleasure for the past 10 years and I can honestly say that during most recent times, ie since there has been a monopoly the condition of the ferries and the service is less than satisfactory. We have all heard there are 2 new ferries due in December but as per the RC&RM letter and as I have personally had a lot of experience in the boat building industry, new vessels are rarely completed and delivered on time.Once vessels of this nature are launched there is a testing period of up to six months to iron out any bugs so it is hard to see them being here as soon as December unless they are second hand.

2.The crews. They are great, they take a lot of flack from the travellers about the said monopoly and they manage to remain very cool under the extremely bad conditions that they are forced to work in, I have never once heard them complain about their conditions and they are always polite and helpful.

3. 15:30 service. The only person that believes there is a 15:30 ferry is the manager. Everyone, even the staff know it doesn
October 1st 2006
Regarding Point No.5 "Fares" (above).
"Needing a PR guru" to explain fares is not the issue. The writer (Mr Roberts) refers to some time in the far distant past when there were 2 company's (sic) running. With respect, this is such outdated information it can't be still relevant. Remember, when Sunferries started ops the fares charged by the previous two operators were (from memory) $19 return - Sunferries' opening fare was about $12. They blew the competition out of the water.
But that was at least six years ago - before GST, before the oil price spike and before Nelly Bay harbour and the construction boom. The price structure today cannot be related to the situation that existed during the "2 company's" era.
In any case. The gossip, rumour and lies put around at that time were legendary Funny actually, considering how both operators came unstuck through their feeble attempts at collusion.
This is not to defend Sunferries when they may not deserve defending. But let's not make stuff up or deliberately leave it out just to try to make them look bad. For example, when quoting fares for the Whitsundays what is the "discount" fare ("...nothing like $76") that is charged.
Also, back in the "old days" the total number of passengers being carried was public information because of the "head tax" paid by each company for the upkeep of the Picnic Bay Jetty. The number rose from about 230,000 in the mid 1970s to about 360,000 in the mid 1990s. It must be 400,000 by now although there would be a split with the car ferry. Still, those numbers are out there somewhere and when the yield from each return ticket is derived and the size of the staffing, fuel, financing and maintenance bills calculated I think it would create a much more sobering number than many commentators admit.
October 18th 2006
What I can't understand is WHY DOESNT SOMEONE START A LITTLE TAXI service which offers similar fares (as the fares aren't cheap) to take up to 8 people backwards and forwards whenever they want in a smaller boat? With a such a large population and no ferries available from 11pm to dawn apart from the fact that none of the ferries that do run are in 'zinc' with flights to and from Townsville each would think that an independent operator would
clean up with 'the tourists' who don't wish to leave often up to 4 hours before their flight leaves because thats all that is available. Where are you independent operator?
October 26th 2006
Molly, maybe there's not enough demand. And think about the overheads!

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