Ferry issues need to be addressed

Last updated 12:43 13/05/2014

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OPINION: The management of the Interislander ferries seems to be all at sea.

Pardon the pun, but it's an apt description of KiwiRail's inability to keep their ferries in operation.

At first it appeared to be bad luck, but there have been so many instances in the past six months that it's beginning to look like bad management.

Yesterday, NZ First leader Winston Peters came under fire for electioneering when he accused the company of covering up three "serious incidents" involving the Cook Strait ferries in the past two weeks.

But last night he was partly vindicated when it was announced that two ferry captains had been stood down after allegations of two near-misses involving the Arahura in the past five days. The absence of the two masters while Maritime New Zealand investigates the incidents means the Arahura's embattled sister ferry Stena Alegra seems unlikely to return to a routine timetable before the weekend. That is, in the words of one source, because "there's no-one to drive the thing".

A KiwiRail spokeswoman confirmed last night that the suspensions would stand even if they caused further disruption to ferry services. "We have sufficient masters to sail Stena for the trials and for later this week, although there may be limited sailings."

The near-misses under investigation are alleged to have happened at Picton at 2am on Friday, and in Wellington Harbour about 7am on Sunday.

Interislander general manager Thomas Davis says staff involved in Maritime NZ inquiries were routinely stood down as part of standard operating procedure.

Peters says KiwiRail seems to be operating from the script of a television comedy which is an apt description if you study the record.

Davis makes the point that near-misses need to be put into the context of about 4600 Cook Strait crossings a year by Interislander ferries. Between January 2011 and December 2013, Maritime NZ received 68 incident reports of all types, of which 15 were reported as near-misses.

Interislander was involved in 36 of the reported incidents, and 10 of the near-misses.

The Interislander has been plagued by problems. The Stena Alegra was brought over to replace the crippled Aratere which lost a propeller and is being repaired overseas. The Swedish-owned, British-registered ferry's list of misfortunes includes breaking down in Wellington Harbour. Last week a spate of staff illness was blamed for cancelled sailings of the Stena Alegra.

There is a genuine concern about the reputation of travelling across Cook Strait by ferry. Quite honestly, why would you, at the moment, unless you had no other choice. It's not as if it's a very cheap option for passengers.

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Is Interislander management unlucky in its choice of ferries and replacements, or is it down to poor decision making? Whatever the reason, the credibility of the company is at an all-time low and something needs to change.

- The Nelson Mail

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