Brownlee dismisses 'unsafe' ferry claims

Last updated 09:01 10/04/2014
Stena alegra

FERRY TROUBLES: A gash of about five metres can be seen along the port side of the Stena Alegra, above the water line. Workers can be seen using a gas torch to repair the gash.

Stena Alegra
ON AGAIN, OFF AGAIN: Freight trucks exit the Stena Alegra ferry.

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Transport Minister Gerry Brownlee is dismissing claims from NZ First leader Winston Peters that KiwiRail is running an "unsafe" ferry operation.

Replacement Cook Strait ferry Stena Alegra has a six-metre gash in its hull after hitting a Wellington wharf, and is likely to be out of action until at least Sunday night.

On the 46th anniversary of the day the Wahine sank, problems continue to mount for its modern-day successors.

KiwiRail, and its problem-plagued ferry operation, has cost the taxpayer about $1 billion since the rail company was was bought back, and the Government says it will need to keep reaching into the public purse for top-ups the foreseeable future.

Stena Alegra, which has been chartered as temporary cover for the crippled Aratere, hit the wharf while berthing during high winds on Tuesday, and engineers will have to plug the gash before it can sail again.

Meanwhile, the Aratere will be spending an extra month in dry dock in Singapore after unexpected cracks were found in its rudders which now need to be replaced.

The ferry, which lost a propeller in Cook Strait when a shaft broke on November 5, had been scheduled to be back in service early next month, after its return from Singapore.

It was on the verge of being returned to the water for sea trials, with two new propeller shafts and refurbished stabilisers fitted, when the dual rudder crack problem emerged.

Now it would have to wait about a month while two new "rudder stocks" were made in South Korea, Transport Minister Gerry Brownlee said yesterday.

During question time in Parliament, he was asked by NZ First leader Winston Peters whether KiwiRail management had any plans to get "a replacement ship for the replacement ship".

Peters suggested Brownlee had adopted an approach that "anything short of a sinking" was OK in his dealings with KiwiRail and Interislander management.

Peters later alleged the ferry operation was unsafe, saying it was using 20 times as much lubricant as other ferries and left the country with only one ship which could take rail freight.

"It's time to sack the board and management at KiwiRail and to bring in experts to sort out the mess."

Brownlee said the previous Labour government had bought an "absolute lemon" when it bought back KiwiRail.

"This Government has poured more than $1 billion into a recapitalisation programme, trying to make the thing work. Sometimes it is hard to kick life into something that is fundamentally dead," he told Radio New Zealand this morning.

He said: "The issues relating to the Aratere are being dealt with satisfactorily in Singapore. There is no other choice. It lost a propeller, we have got to find out why, and we have got to fix it."

The Stena Alegra would be back in service on Sunday, he said.

"It is unfortunate, I wish it hadn't happened but it did and you've just got to get on and fix it."

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He dismissed concerns about more fundamental problems suggested by Peters.

"It uses a slight amount more lubricant, about 10 per cent more but it's a different ship, you'd expect it wouldn't perform exactly the same as the Aratere does but it's certainly not 20 times."

He was not concerned about the extra work being done on the Aratere, saying the ships did not come out of the water often so when they did so it was worthwhile finding and addressing all possible issues.

"That's what Kiwirail are doing."

He maintained confidence in KiwiRail, saying they had been systematic and transparent in their approach to the issues.

The Stena Alegra lease runs out on the 30th of June but the owners had said it was available for longer if required.

Yesterday he questioned whether the weather yesterday was extreme enough to be blamed for the accident.

He did not know what the extra cost to the taxpayer would be.

Interislander general manager Thomas Davis declined to comment on Peters' suggestion that management heads should roll.

- This story has been corrected

- The Dominion Post

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