Gozo’s ‘fourth’ ferry boat kills waiting time, but accessibility is issue

Despite the introduction of Gozo's 'fourth' ferry boat cutting down wait time, its lack of a lift, and radically different and dated design to its more modern counterparts has proved to be a significant problem for some passengers

Passengers who leave their car have to negotiate a steep, narrow climb of some 36 steps
Passengers who leave their car have to negotiate a steep, narrow climb of some 36 steps

The pleasure of a Gozitan weekend, even in the torrid heat of the Santa Marija week, has had an added bonus: few queues for cars boarding the ferry at Cirkewwa and Mgarr.

The reason: Gozo Channel’s recently-chartered ferry, the MV Nikolaus, the fourth for its fleet, has brought about an improvement in the time commuters spend queueing to board the Gozo ship.

But the vessel’s “numerous shortcomings” have become a source of grief for the elderly and disabled.

Gozo Minister Justyne Caruana this week announced that Gozo Channel will retain the MV Nikolaus, which is Greek-flagged, until a fresh call for a replacement is issued.

However, the ferry boat’s lack of a lift, and radically different and dated design to its more modern counterparts, has proved to be a significant problem for some passengers.

Passengers who leave their car have to negotiate a steep, narrow climb of some 36 steps – highly uncomfortable for those with child or the elderly. No lift is available for these commuters. Motorists who are ushered to drive up to the upper deck have it easier, since aboard the Nikolaos, the upper deck shares its passenger space with cars.

Surely enough, the Commission for the Rights of Persons with Disability (CRPD) told MaltaToday that although the accessibility problems on board the ship had recently been partially mitigated, the vessel was not suitable for use in the long-term.

“The CRPD is aware of the vessel’s numerous shortcomings with respect to accessibility for all, which the Gozo Channel Company Limited has partially mitigated in the light of the temporary employment of the vessel in the ferrying service between Malta and Gozo,” spokesperson Bernard Busuttil said.

However, he highlighted that the “CRPD does not deem such arrangements to be adequate should the vessel Nikolaos be employed in the long term.”

He said that the Commission was appealing to the competent authorities to take necessary action to ensure complete accessibility both on the Nikolaos as well as on the other ships in the Gozo Channel’s fleet.

Borg underscored that, to date, the CRPD had only been informed by Gozo Channel that the vessel Nikolaos was leased for a period of six months and that it wasn’t registered in Malta.

Travel by sea, including matters regarding accessibility, is regulated by EU law, but the CRPD is not a national enforcement body, which means that it is not competent national authority when certifying accessibility on board seafaring vessels.

World of difference for students

Gozitan students are amongst the commuters who face the biggest hurdle travelling to the University of Malta. But Gozo University Group (GUG) president Renée Formosa told MaltaToday the fourth ferry – even though lacking the sophistication of Gozo Channel’s three boats – had demonstrated how much of an improvement one additional ship made.

“We are now all using it and it has made a world of a difference, clearly showing how useful it was,” Formosa said.

“So if it is something which will remain in place for the long-term, in itself it is already making things easier for us. This summer I and others encountered no problems crossing between Gozo and Malta.”

In March, the GUG has opposed the construction of a permanent link between Malta and Gozo, insisting other options could be explored.

Formosa pointed out that GUG’s opposition to the tunnel had stemmed from that fact that a survey conducted in 2018 had showed that many favoured the tunnel because it was the only idea for improved connectivity being thrown about.

“With the tunnel, there still exists a certain dilemma, in that we do not know what its effects will be,” she said, “In the long-term, it is unclear what would be best.”

Formosa emphasised that GUG wanted what was best for Gozitan students, and that it was in favour of a fast ferry service and of anything which could facilitate their daily or weekly travel.

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