Category : News
Author: Tracy Neal

Transport officials have been directed to assess how supplies like food will be impacted with two Wellington-Picton ferries out of action.

Already frustrated at delays, truckies' and food suppliers' concerns have worsened with news the Interislander won't honour freight booking over the next two weeks.

The ferries had been cancelling more and more voyages citing bad weather, they say, and from Monday two of the three ageing ships will break from sailing entirely. It's the first time services have been reduced to one ship for an extended period, Interislander says.

The commercial road freight sector says the Cook Strait link is now under acute pressure, with KiwiRail advising major disruptions from next week. The Kaiarahi has gearbox problems and the Aratere sails to Sydney for dry dock work – leaving just one Interislander ferry, the Kaitaki.

The Kaitaki will be the only Interislander ferry in service for the next two weeks, to the dismay of producers trying to get their wares to the North Island market.

Transport Minister Michael Wood says it’s a result of unavoidable events, which have unfortunately happened at the same time, but the key things are that KiwiRail works to get both vessels back up and running as soon as possible, and that there is clear communication with the sector.

“I’ve asked the Ministry of Transport what the impact of this is likely to be on the supply chain and will keep monitoring the situation,” Wood told Newsroom. 

Nick Leggett, who heads the Road Transport Forum, says the timing could not be worse, and he has “serious concerns” about the next couple of weeks.

“At a time when the supply chain is already under significant strain, two out of three Interislander ferries are down, and Bluebridge can’t fully pick up the slack as they are obliged to their bookings first.”

The Kaiarahi has experienced problems with its gearbox and has been out of service while the extent of the mechanical problem was assessed. Interislander executive general manager Walter Rushbrook says there is no set timeframe for repairs to the Kaiarahi, but it is expected to take weeks.

On Monday, Aratere leaves for Sydney for dry dock work and is not expected back in New Zealand to resume sailings until October 2.

Kiwirail has advised it will be unable to honour bookings for those two weeks. These bookings will need to be either transferred to a date after October 2 or cancelled.

Bluebridge operates two ferries across Cook Strait and is understood to be running at near capacity. Newsroom has sought confirmation of this and is yet to hear.


Wood has been advised there are load sharing arrangements with Bluebridge for when either shipper has a disruption and that this arrangement has been activated, meaning there will still be three ships providing Cook Strait services over the 12-day period.

Rushbrook says freight will take priority during the reduced service. “While New Zealand’s supply chain faces a challenging few weeks, we are confident that with the co-operation of our customers we will be able to manage freight volumes across Cook Strait.”

There will be extra sailings of Aratere until its departure to Sydney to allow rail customers to move as much freight as possible before then. Extra sailings will also be added when the Aratere returns.

“Transport operators say they’ve noticed that the Interislander has a lower threshold for cancelling sailings due to poor weather or incoming poor weather, which is causing greater levels of frustration over moving freight across Cook Strait.”

The Road Transport Association, the membership-based national industry association, has advised transport operators by letter to confirm bookings as soon as possible, as unsecured bookings will not be reallocated.

The letter posted on social media has sparked fury among some who have questioned the timing of maintenance on one ship while the other is in dry dock.

Kiwirail says that to comply with maritime flag requirements, the timing of this dry dock could not be avoided or deferred. 

But the union representing truck drivers says it is bad news for a sector already pressured by tight deadlines. Jared Abbott of First Union says delays are a constant problem for those juggling logbooks and time limits, and this will make it worse.

Drivers are required by law to work no more than 13 hours in a 24-hour period and must then take a break of at least 10 hours.

“Disturbances like this have a big impact on the sector. It’s especially frustrating for the owner-drivers who have to absorb a lot of the costs themselves.”

The dilemma has given weight to increasing calls for change, from road freight operators who say crossing Cook Strait is a worsening problem.

Leggett says the sector is reporting more frequent ferry delays and cancellations, especially by Interislander, citing health and safety reasons.

“Transport operators say they’ve noticed that the Interislander has a lower threshold for cancelling sailings due to poor weather or incoming poor weather, which is causing greater levels of frustration over moving freight across Cook Strait.”

Interislander’s executive general manager, Walter Rushbrook, said guidelines for deciding to cancel sailings included a wave height of five metres for passenger sailings, and 5.5 metres for freight sailings. 

He said these standards had not changed and were designed to ensure the comfort of passengers and the safety of freight, rather than the capabilities of ships operating in rough weather. “While the current fleet is ageing, there is no need to nurse the ships during normal operations,” Rushbrook said.

A report into the heavy rolling of the passenger freight ferry Aratere in 2006, suggests there has been a change to operating procedures since then.

Rail and vehicle cargo was damaged when secure lashings broke, and passengers received minor injuries when the ship rolled twice in waves up to 10 metres and even higher, after it left Wellington. 

A Transport Accident Investigation report said the severity of the roll and then its sudden sheer caused the ship to list, which was unable to be corrected until it reached Picton.

The report said at the time, Interislander had neither a formalised procedure nor limiting criteria to help the Master in command in the decision whether to sail.

Since then, Interislander has put in place a revised set of actions including closer monitoring of conditions in Cook Strait when the “significant wave height” is forecast to be higher than four metres.

Sailings must be approved by the management team when this threshold is reached, the TAIC report noted.

It said the nature of Cook Strait meant it gave rise to the worst storms in New Zealand waters, averaging about 25 a year.

Leggett says KiwiRail’s planned new ferries will bring their own set of challenges, mainly in that they are being designed to prioritise rail freight and because they will be larger, there will be fewer scheduled crossings.

The company has signed a $551 million deal with a Korean shipyard for the delivery of two new, state-of-the-art, Cook Strait ferries. The first will arrive in 2025 and the second in 2026. 

Leggett says the Cook Strait link is vital for transporters of perishable goods, but the challenge could be remedied by an alternative coastal shipping service. “We need to shore up our supply chain in New Zealand.”

The Government said last year it was committed to moving more freight on the “blue highway” to increase the resilience of the transport system.

It has allocated $30 million to support development of a coastal shipping plan through the 2021-24 National Land Transport Programme.

The Government said last year that while coastal shipping is currently suited to move goods that are not time-sensitive, it has been under-utilised and has a greater role to play within our transport system.

Wood says the current situation highlights the importance of having a national supply chain strategy to help bring together players from across the industry during times of disruption. 

“This is something that Australia, and many other countries, have undertaken to better understand how their supply chains operate and to inform investment decisions. 

“We’re committed to forming a strategy and it will involve all players in the freight system, including ports, logistics, coastal shipping, roading, and rail.”

Wood expects this will take around 18 months to complete, once the work formally kicks off at the end of the year.

Note from Nighthawk.NZ:

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