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Inter-island ferry system near collapse

NUKU΄ALOFA, Tonga (Matangi Tonga, Feb. 5, 2009) - With Tonga’s inter-island ferry service in a state of near-collapse, Tonga’s Navy was called on to help teachers return to school at the start of the first term for 2009.

The Ministry of Education last week requested the service of a Tonga Navy patrol boat, the VOEA Savea, to transport more than 20 government teachers from Tongatapu to the outer islands of Ha’apai, Vava’u, Niuatoputapu and Niuafo’ou.

The VOEA Savea returned to Nuku’alofa on Monday with teachers from Vava’u and Ha’apai to be relocated elsewhere.

It is not known how many outer-islands students still face difficulty in trying to return to school for the first term in 2009, which has already started.

The near-collapse of the inter-islands ferry service followed the break down of the main ferry the MV Olovaha on January 21, and in the meantime the MV Pulupaki of Walter Shipping has been running an irregular and occasional service to some islands.

The MV Olovaha has been having engine problems for months. According to one of the engineers who was desperately trying to fix it before Christmas, it was a gear-box problem, but somehow they could not get a new gear box, and so patching up a gear-box was what they had been trying to do.

The Managing Director of the Shipping Corporation of Polynesia, John Jonesse said yesterday that they were waiting for engine parts from New Zealand and he was hopeful that the MV Olovaha would be back in normal service next week.

He said that the damage to the engine was caused by a bad contamination of fuel with water from a source not yet identified, which resulted in injectors and pumps on their main engines requiring replacement

"It is unfortunate that we have had a poor run over the last two months but people are too easy in forgetting the great service the Olovaha has provided for many years," said John. The inter-island ferry has been in service for 26 years.

A new ferry is currently being constructed in Japan, funded by the Japanese government and it is expected to be in service toward the end of the year or early 2010.

With the inter-island ferry service disrupted, the only reliable means of transport to the northern islands is by air. Chatham Pacific Airline is flying a tightly scheduled air service to Vava’u, Ha’apai and the Niuas. However, the airfare is a lot more than the ferry. By air pa’anga from Tongatapu to Vava’u, one way costs 200 pa’anga [US$98] comparing with 81 pa’anga [US$40] on the Olovaha and 88 pa’anga on the Pulupaki. A one-way air ticket to the Niuas is about 500 pa’anga, comparing with 113 pa’anga on the MV Olovaha.

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