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Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Water Taxi Tips

UPDATE: For up to date information on the Water Taxi Service, please see http://www.keithfrancis.net/2009/06/water-taxi-service-need-to-know-and.html

Having travelled on the service for a bit and in response to questions posed on and offline, I offer the following tidbits.
  • The ferry service only runs on week days and that at scheduled times.  Departure is always on time.  If you miss boarding, then you've missed the boat.  The attendants at the loading areas will pleasantly and politely advise thus.
  • The service costs TT$15.00 one-way, and you can purchase tickets at either jetty for any scheduled sailing in the current week.
  • For TT$3.00 more, you can purchase a PTSC bus transfer service in either an Easterly or Westerly direction from the port through Port of Spain as an attachment to your ticket.  I'm not sure whether a similar San Fernando transfer service exists as yet; I've seen no indication that one does.
  • Tickets are sold for a specific sailing in one direction, and are both non-refundable and non-transferable.  In short, if you miss the boat, don't expect to get a pre-purchased ticket exchanged for a seat on the next sailing.
  • You can park for free in secure facilities at the Cruise Ship Complex and at the San Fernando jetty while you travel on the ferry.
  • The sailing schedule is set weekly, is published in the daily papers, and is displayed on whiteboards near the ticket booths at both ports.  As far as I know, there is no number to call to get the schedule, nor is there a website where you can check the schedule.  I hope that this changes in time.
  • If a cruise ship is scheduled to be in the Cruise Ship Complex on a particular day, this is catered for in the week's sailing schedule and will be reflected by fewer sailings on the day or days that the cruise ship is in port.    From what I gather and understand, the water-taxi service is running from temporary quarters in both San Fernando and Port of Spain, although the San Fernando jetty might better be described as semi-permanent.  The boats are renting time at a berth at the Cruise Ship Complex in Port of Spain until their permanent jetty is constructed closer to the Breakfast Shed at the end of Independence Square.  Thus, if you plan on using the service, make sure to review the schedule for that week on the Monday.
  • Sailing may also be impacted unscheduled issues.  If one or more of the four boats break down for whatever reason, then the week's schedule will of course be impacted.  Incidents here seem to have disappeared with increased vigilance on the part of the ferry crews and greater attention to maintenance.
  • There is security on each boat in the form of an Amalgamated Security Company officer.  All passengers are scanned and their bags check before boarding.  Access to both jetties in Port of Spain and San Fernando is security-restricted.  If anyone fears that one officer might not be enough to handle the cabin, all of the crew are fairly large and while not ominous, are not unassuming.
  • The Gulf of Paria encloses a very placid body of water.  This combined with the boats' split hull design makes the ferry ride quite smoothly in open water.  Nonetheless, if you know that you are prone to seasickness, when you board for the first time, locate the bathroom and sit at the back of the cabin in an aisle seat.  Ensure that the seat pocket in front of you has a bag.  These are just precautions though; you may find that you won't feel any discomfort at all.
  • Whether travelling in the morning or evening, prepare yourself to take a snooze.  Between the air conditioning, the cushioned and contoured seats, and the low drone of the boat's engines, you may find yourself drifting off during the trip.
  • From what I've heard, the service started with about 15 of the current San Fernando-based regulars on its first day or two.  Now, boats are running with just a handful of seats unoccupied.  There may come a time where you won't be able to buy a ticket for a day's sailing on the same day.
  • Yes, the trip really does take about an hour from cast off to docking.

Sunday, January 25, 2009

Water Taxi Woe...

UPDATE: For up to date information on the Water Taxi Service, please see http://www.keithfrancis.net/2009/06/water-taxi-service-need-to-know-and.html

For the second morning in two days, I tried to catch the new water-taxi service to get to work in Port of Spain; I would usually take the bus and get some additional zees on the two-plus hour trip.  Sadly, for the second time, I wasn't able to enjoy what I've heard some Southerners bill as a smooth and enjoyable ride between the country's major cities.

Having found the sailing schedule online in an old newspaper report, I arrived at 6:45 for the seven o'clock sailing.  I was then informed that the boat whose ramp was being pulled in was actually scheduled to sail at 6:45 on that day.  Being late was my fault as a first-timer, I felt, so I didn't fuss.  The sailing times for that week were clearly written on a whiteboard on the side of the ticket booth after all.  A quick assessment was made, and I decided to hurry back to the terminal mall to catch the seven o'clock bus rather than wait for the eight o'clock ferry.  Experience suggested that I'd get to town at the same time anyway, if what I'd heard about the sailing time was both right and consistent.  But, I preferred to not chance another breakdown in the Gulf of Paria and take the mode of transport that I knew.

I'd determined on the way up that I'd make sure and catch the boat on the following morning, but felt that I should try to confirm the scheduled sailing time during the course of the day; I'd lapsed in not taking more careful note of the whiteboard in rushing back for the bus.  None of the newspaper reports online seemed to carry a number for a service office or information line.  And the telephone operator at NIDCO, the state company running the service, seemed to still be on Christmas vacation.

Admittedly, I should have tried to get to the Port of Spain terminal to try to get tickets for that second morning, just to be sure that I'd get on the boat.  But the Trini propensity to take a chance is too well ingrained.  Peter Kelly helped to chain me up the previous evening evening and added to my determination, talking on air about the experience of one of his Ebonyites who took the service one afternoon and got to Port of Spain in less than an hour.

So I was surprised on that second morning to be walking down the road to the San Fernando terminal and meet three frustrated commuters walking back out.  One indicated in a bluster that, "it have a cruise ship in Port of Spain, so now I have to catch my arse to try to get to town!". Looking down the road at the boat's closed loading doors, I'd thought that I'd missed it again, that it was sailing earlier, and it took a little while for it to really sink in that there would be no sailing at all and I had to face the traffic on the bus.  But as I turned on my heel to head back, resignation couldn't set quietly in as it has for the past few months taking public transport.

I've noted Southerners to be a very patient bunch, at least my fellow commuters on the PTSC services.  They will wait quietly in line to catch a bus in the afternoon and into evening, sometimes but not often grumbling softly to themselves as the hours roll by.  It might simply be the knowledge that there's no other affordable option to get between Port of Spain and San Fernando on a daily basis.  One way on a taxi at fifteen dollars means that you'd spend over six hundred dollars in the month just getting between the major points, then more if you hailed from Fyzo, Point or P/Town.  You spend the same time in traffic regardless, sometimes more.  And then it's better to sit in a bus' air conditioning than to have someone's armpit over your head in the back of a car on a warm afternoon after playing musical stopping spots with the drivers and Policemen on Broadway.  For many, the options available really are few.  So they're out on the road before four in the morning to try to get to work in town before eight so that they can try to get out of town before four.

Thus the water-taxi must have brought considerable hope to frustrated commuters who spend way too much quality time on the nation's roads, and there seem to be many who would make the trade-off between the fare and the valuable time saved commuting in spite of the naysayers who suggest that the service is not sustainable and will fail.

Confidence in the service isn't built if, for the early adopters at least, quality isn't consistent.  And I had smiled inside on my first attempt when I looked pleadingly at the woman on the loading bay and she politely informed that sailing will be on time, and that they were trying to keep it that way.

NIDCO needs to be careful though.  If they develop a dependence in their clients and they have hiccups, it will just be a matter of time before alternatives begin to develop.  It was just on the following Sunday that some friends and I were belly-laughing about how long it would be before fishermen started to run "PH" up the coastline, before the recognizable sound of the fish horn became synonymous with not only fresh carite and kingfish but also short drop to Waterloo, before an off-route price from town to Westmoorings is set, and before school children started bussing style on old boats to take the big pirogue with the strobe light, "hard pong" and cute Venezuelan conductor.

I've since taken the water-taxi though, and that several times.  In fact, so long as I'm in South on a morning and have to come to Port of Spain, I try to catch it.  The first time I took the ride was strange, my body still being accustomed to snoozing on most of a two-hour commute.  To me, as soon as I'd drifted off into my post-news-headlines-browsing slumber the crew was announcing arrival in Port of Spain.  It felt odd getting to town so much faster.  I hadn't opted for the bus shuttle and thus took a brisk walk across Port of Spain from the wharf to Woodford Square to catch a taxi to work, feeling way more energized than I usually did.  I hadn't realised until that morning how much sitting or standing on the bus for so long can sap you.  And that makes me wonder whether part of the reason that Southern commuters are so resigned is that they no longer have the energy to spare in order to complain.

I see that resignation in the faces of the two sisters, one attending St. Joseph's Convent Port of Spain and the other in Newtown Girls' Primary School uniform, both exiting the San Fernando bus at Couva on an evening.  I see it on the young man who stands on the bus, hanging and swaying from the handstraps in deep sleep.  I see it on the face of a Gasparillo-bound colleague who was recently relocated from downtown Port of Spain to St. Clair, and who now has to make that extra distance to get to work on time.  I see it in the face of a young lady who gets off the bus at my stop and then takes her time to get a Princes Town maxi.  Sometimes, she's on my bus.  Sometimes, she's still in the line by the time I've left town.

As a former Westerner, we have no idea what it must be like to live like this, to not see what your home looks like in the sunlight.  We might hear about it, but we have no real appreciation for the impact that spending four to six hours of your day on the road can have.  At least, we have no idea until we have to live it.

And thus the water-taxi comes as a welcome reprieve.  And I feel sorry when people get on their high horses and poo-poo the service because it makes no impact on traffic, or they can't seem to get it right, or it's just the PNM wasting money again, or whatever typically negative thing that Trinis can find to say about anyone's attempts to do anything positive.  For about 100 people at a time, the service makes incredible impact on their quality of life.  And if that's not enough of a reason to offer the service, then I don't know what is.

Bring on the trains!

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