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Locals Warn Lives in Danger with Lower Portland Ferry Shut-Down

Nov 9, 2023

Residents are concerned that “lives could be lost” and livestock will be stranded while the Lower Portland ferry is pulled out of service for three months during peak bushfire season.

Local businesses also fear the economic costs of the decision which will also see cross river traffic halted during the height of summer and autumn tourism popularity.

Transport for NSW flatly rejected claims by Hawkesbury City Council (HCC) that a replacement ferry was not available to them. In a statement TfNSW told the Hawkesbury Post that it offered HCC a replacement ferry but due to Council’s inaction it failed to take up the offer in time.

A replacement ferry would have secured safe passage for emergency services and residents during bushfire season and also spared them of the economic pain they will endure without a ferry service.

Emergency services had not been aware that the ferry would shut down for three months over the bushfire season.

Emergency services including the Rural Fire Service and NSW Ambulance had not been made aware of the ferry shutdown until they were contacted by the Hawkesbury Post.

“The RFS had not been informed of the closure, however, there are brigades on both sides of the river to ensure timely response to incidents,” a Rural Fire Service spokesperson said Tuesday.

Locals said that in order to run each of these services, people need to cross the river. NSW Ambulance said it “may take alternate routes via road or dispatch a helicopter to respond.”

The closure of the ferry for about three months will also be problematic for ambulances. To give one example, there was a boat crash at Lower Portland last weekend that required ambulances to use the ferry. The alternative route, using the government run Sackville ferry, takes an extra 40 minutes, precious time in an emergency.

“I was a local of Lower Portland. Also witnessed many times that the Lower Portland ferry saved lives, especially when the Sackville ferry is out of service,” Facebook user Kathy Anthony said.  “Let the Mayor, Councillors on both sides of the river be on the wrong side when they need the ferry service, the time they need ambulance, fire brigade or the Police. But they have to go around to get to the other side,” she said.

“The council can’t close this ferry during fire season, lives could be lost,” local resident Darren Osmotherly, whose business runs houseboats and the Paradise Cafe and Pizzeria at the Lower Portland Ferry Wharf.

“We also get 75% of our business from the other side of the river, after the floods and COVID this will be another hit to our business.”

The ferry provides a critical link for the community.

More than 500 people live in Lower Portland and thousands more in surrounding areas. There are also thousands of tourists, rely on the ferry especially during the summer and early autumn when it will be out of service.

Farmers are also concerned about their ability to save stock in the event of fire. The road on the Hawkesbury side of the ferry is not capable of taking stock trailers, cutting an evacuation route – the only one left is the ferry.

HCC said in a media release, in response to questions from the Hawkesbury Post: “Transport for NSW has advised that a suitable replacement is not available.”

But Transport for NSW told the Hawkesbury Post that it “has offered Hawkesbury City Council use of a spare vehicle ferry while maintenance is carried out to the Lower Portland Ferry vessel.”

“However, Transport’s spare vessel will be in use while we carry out three major overhauls of our ferry services between September 2023 and April 2024. These overhauls are part of a regular and well established maintenance schedule,” a TfNSW spokesman said.

Hawkesbury Mayor Sarah McMahon posted the announcement about the ferry closure to the Mayoral Facebook page but quickly, after negative feedback she turned off comments.

The HCC problem is that it has left maintenance on the ferry to the very last minute – under maritime regulations it must be serviced before the end of April, when its Certificate of Survey expires.

“The Certificate of Survey, issued in January 2020 required an out-of-water survey to be undertaken in the third year, being by April 2022, and the fifth year, being by April 2024. In February 2021, Council successfully applied for an exemption from the requirement to undertake the out-of-water survey in 2022 and will comply with the requirement to have completed an out-of-water survey by April 2024, ” HCC General Manager Elizabeth Richardson said.

HCC could have checked sometime in the last two years with TfNSW about when its spare ferry would be available – but it did not.

The reason for this appears to be that the ferry’s contracts were completely ignored by the Council until the ferry operator Tono Group contacted HCC Procurement Coordinator Gordon Sainbury, three weeks before the three year contract for the ferry’s operation was due to finish on August 5, according to documents obtained by the Hawkesbury Post under freedom of information (GIPA) legislation.

Following this, the council hurried out a tender for ferry maintenance. Ms Richardson said: “The ferry out-of-water survey tender has been finalised and the successful tenderer has been appointed. It is anticipated that this will be completed in or around March 2024.”

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