Gozo Channel is expected to start operating with four vessels in a few weeks’ time, as the company has concluded a deal to lease an old ro-ro vessel to join its three current ships making the crossing between the two islands.
Maritime industry sources told the Times of Malta that the deal was given the greenlight by Prime Minster Joseph Muscat and the Labour Party was planning to make an official announcement during a partisan activity in Gozo just a few days before the end of the ongoing electoral campaign.
Gozo Channel sources confirmed that a lease agreement has been finalised and the ship is expected to leave a Greek port in the coming days to join the company’s fleet “at least for this summer”.
The ship has been leased together with its on-board crew, as is usually done for short ship leases, and will not necessitate any other additional staff on the part of Gozo Channel.
Gozo Channel would be paying thousands every day for the services of the ship, expected to carry some 250 passenger cars.
This is not Gozo Channel’s first attempt to increase its vessels to four in order to be able to offer a better and quicker channel crossing.
Many Gozitan lobby groups had been putting pressure on the government to introduce a fourth ship as they complain that, with the increase in traffic, they are waiting much longer to board the ferry and reach their final destinations.
Last year, Gozo Channel had managed to find a ship and had almost completed its lease for summer at €3,000 a day.
However, the deal was vetoed by the Finance Ministry, as it was calculated that the increase in the quality of the service offered compared to the expense incurred by the company was not justified.
The state entity already receives millions of taxpayer funds in subsidies and the forth ship will necessitate more State aid.
However, Gozo Channel sources described the government’s priorities this year as “special”.
“As happened before the last general election, where almost every Tom, Dick and Harry in Gozo was somehow put on the government’s payroll, the fourth ship is Labour’s carrot for this month’s election,” the sources said.
“It seems that this time around, the government has other priorities than saving money and the Finance Minister is not objecting anymore,” the sources commented.
Although the leased ro-ro is expected to reduce the crossing waiting time, logistically it is posing some technical problems.
Since there seems to be no place for the ship to berth at the Mġarr Harbour - as the port can only hold three ships at one go - one of the company’s vessels will have to be berthed in Ċirkewwa with the crew on board, around the clock, in case of inclement weather.
The passenger gangways at both Mġarr and Ċirkewwa, custom built for the current Gozo Channel vessels, will apparently not be used for the leased ship.
Gozo Channel officials said that although it was true that an additional ship on its fleet will come at a cost, certain savings could still be made as overtime for Gozo Channel personnel and its contractors will come to a halt if no extra trips are necessary.
In the meantime, plans to introduce a long-awaited fast-ferry service between the two islands are still at a standstill as a legal battle on the way the State company chose its fast-ferry partner is being contested.
Virtu Ferries is challenging the company’s decision after its offer was rejected and an inexperienced company – Islands Ferry Network – was selected.
While Gozo Channel is insisting that its decision was based on the best commercial offer, Virtu Ferries claims that this was a ‘flawed’ and ‘illegal’ selection.
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