KiwiRail CEO Peter Reidy: Our Cook Strait emergency lifeline won't hold up in a big quake

Damage at the Interislander ferry terminal meant rail wagons could not be loaded onto the ferries for two weeks after ...

Damage at the Interislander ferry terminal meant rail wagons could not be loaded onto the ferries for two weeks after the November quake.

The Wellington and Marlborough ports are a critical link between the North and South Islands. KiwiRail chief executive PETER REIDY says the November earthquake exposed problems with both.

OPINION: Wellington is cut off from the rest of the North Island with roads in ruins, railway lines askew and supplies running low following a destructive earthquake.

In the harbour, ferries laden with essential supplies, equipment and experts wait to berth, as the docking facilities at the ferry terminal lie broken and unusable.

Ferries crossing Cook Strait usually carry 112 rail wagons daily.

Ferries crossing Cook Strait usually carry 112 rail wagons daily.

Wellington came closer to this scenario than most realise after the earthquakes in central New Zealand in November last year. The disaster exposed a crucial weakness in the resilience of port infrastructure at the bottom of the North, and top of the South, Islands.

Last week, Deloitte released its report on the aftermath of the earthquake and the financial implications on Wellington. In The Forgotten Impact, the authors called for investment in resilience for the city, and the country saying "utilities, such as Wellington's port and water facilities, are fragile, yet will be hugely important in delivering an emergency response."

So what's the problem?

KiwiRail and Bluebridge ferries are the only sea-based transport link across Cook Strait and are a critical component of New Zealand's supply chain.

This connection is vulnerable to earthquakes and other natural disasters – not because of the vessels, but because of the lack of robustness in the landside infrastructure to accommodate them. Action is urgently required to address this weakness.

The current landside ferry infrastructure was built more than 50 years ago for much smaller ships, and is no longer fit for purpose. It is built on reclaimed land, beside an earthquake fault. There are no back-up berths or spare link spans (which allow freight  and passengers to be loaded and unloaded) to use in an emergency – or even after a minor mishap.

In the November 2016 earthquake, at CentrePort the rail link span and gangway used for leading road and rail freight and passengers onto Aratere was damaged. Rail wagons could not be carried across Cook Strait for two weeks. Before the earthquake, 112 wagons travelled in each direction per day.

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The earthquake also damaged Bluebridge's berths at CentrePort and reduced access to their marshalling area.

In Picton, damage to the passenger terminal building meant ferry traffic was restricted to vehicle-only customers for two weeks.

In the event of a major natural disaster, the interrupted freight could be vital food, water, medical supplies and fuel.

Wellington and Picton both need modern, multi-user facilities with in-built resilience such as floating link spans. They need upgraded road connections to ensure access for critical supplies and equipment in the event of an earthquake. And both regions need plans for back-up berths and alternative temporary ports, should the worst happen. The required investment can also factor in projected freight growth, continued increases in tourism, and the likelihood of larger and more efficient ships in future.

One option being considered is for a national ferry terminal to be developed at CentrePort to accommodate ferries and the 2500 trucks that cross Cook Strait each week on all ferries. Overseas, companies often co-locate ferry operations to ensure resilience and reliability are of the highest standards.

With an imminent need to replace KiwiRail's Interislander fleet from 2020, KiwiRail has been working with CentrePort and Port Marlborough on an overall review of berth and terminal operations to ensure future facilities can accommodate road, rail and ship connectivity, and so that they are resilient and fit for purpose. 

Resilient ports are important not only for Wellington, but for all of New Zealand. Working closely together is the way to ensure New Zealand has the risk management it needs and we are prepared for any eventuality. 

Peter Reidy is chief executive of KiwiRail.

 - The Dominion Post


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