Fast ferry bidder promises sea travel revolution

A fast ferry tender awarded by Gozo Channel is stalled because of an ongoing court case but Chris Magro from the winning company explains the transport vision that offers more than just a Gozo-Malta fast link

Chris Magro says the plan is to revolutionise travel between Gozo and Malta but insists this time around, the proposal will also interest Maltese commuters and not just Gozitans
Chris Magro says the plan is to revolutionise travel between Gozo and Malta but insists this time around, the proposal will also interest Maltese commuters and not just Gozitans

Traffic congestion makes it to the top of the national agenda every October when schools reopen and driving patterns change.

And invariably the debate is accompanied by calls for the creation of an underground mass transport system to beat traffic.

But for Chris Magro the solution to traffic congestion can be partly found in what he terms as nature’s gift to the islands – the sea.

A Gozitan, Magro believes that a reliable and fast sea travel service connecting Mgarr (in Gozo) to Valletta, and Valletta to key locations along Malta’s eastern coastline could be part of the solution.

Magro is the CEO of Magro Brothers, a Gozitan food processing company that has joined forces with the Fortel Group to offer a fast ferry service.

The private joint venture, Island Ferry Network, was chosen by Gozo Channel as its fast ferry partner following a tendering procedure, earlier this year.

That process is currently caught up in a court battle after the losing bidder, Virtu Ferries, contested the award, claiming among other things that the chosen company did not have the necessary experience in operating fast ferries.

The tender is now suspended, with the matter in front of the court of appeal.

Magro is unperturbed by the criticism. He admits Magro Brothers has no current business interests in sea travel – historically, the company did operate a ferry service between Gozo and Malta – but its partner, Fortel, runs the sea leisure-cruise company Captain Morgan, operates the Marsamxett sea ferry service, open-top buses and hotels.

He contends that Island Ferry Network has experience in dealing with passengers and running operations at sea, however it will also seek advice from foreign companies and hire the right people to operate a fast ferry.

“The owners of air operator companies do not necessarily have to be pilots but they engage the right personnel to fly their planes and this is what we will be doing,” Magro rationalises.

He says Island Ferry Network did not go for the simple solution of offering Gozo Channel a dry lease on an old vessel. A dry lease is when a vessel is leased without a crew.

The company plans to invest €20 million in purposely-built fast ferry boats that would carry passengers and not cars.

“It would have been easy for us to do like our competitors did… we opted instead for a risk and reward approach that will provide new vessels and a holistic transport vision,” Magro says.

Valletta a fast ferry hub

The offer made by Island Ferry Network is more than just point-to-point travel between Gozo and Valletta, he adds.

The company aims to turn Valletta into a hub from where passengers can take smaller, fast ferries to St Julian’s and Bugibba in the north and Smart City and Marsascala in the south.

“Our proposal went beyond the requirements of the public service obligation by offering a fast ferry service between Gozo and Malta every hour and extending the service along two new routes,” he says.

But the vision also includes plans to have direct buses to Mater Dei hospital and the university from the ferry berth in Valletta for Gozitans who come to Malta for this purpose.

“We are also having discussions with other operators to have electric bikes and cars at the ferry nodes to provide commuters with a holistic package… we do not want to simply dump passengers in Valletta but offer them alternative modes of transport to reach their final destination,” Magro says.

The company will seek interoperability with the public transport system through the Tal-Linja card. This is already a reality for the ferry service inside the harbours on either side of the Valletta peninsula.

Gozitans have been promised a fast ferry service to Valletta ever since the catamaran operated by Gozo Channel stopped running 16 years ago.

Dogged by problems, the service only lasted six years between 1996 and 2002, leaving Gozitans with nothing more than a sour taste and empty pledges.

This could change in the future but it begs the question as to how sustainable a new fast ferry service could be.

Magro is realistic about the prospects.

He says Gozo Channel is doing a good job in ferrying passengers between the islands but there is a 40-minute wait for the next ship and the stop in Malta still requires people to travel for at least another hour by car.

“The numbers today are barely sustainable but this is why we have to offer a reliable and more frequent service. Once people know the service is reliable and timely, they will choose to travel this way and not just as a means to cross between both islands,” Magro says.

The company’s vision may come as a breath of fresh air. Valletta will be a 40-minute voyage from Mgarr with the possibility of hopping onto another ferry boat to reach other destinations without getting stuck in traffic.

Magro says the plan is to revolutionise travel between Gozo and Malta but insists this time around, the proposal will also interest Maltese commuters and not just Gozitans.