Investing in Interislander fleet crucial to future of NZ Inc
OPINION: Buying a new Cook Strait ferry is not like buying a new suit or even a new car. Buying large ships is a complex business, balancing myriad factors to ensure you end up with a vessel that can do the job it needs to day after day, 365 days a year, across one of the more demanding stretches of water in the world for the next 30 years or more.
When KiwiRail's leased Kaitaki ship - New Zealand's largest passenger ferry - came up for sale last year, we jumped at the opportunity of buying it. Not because it's a new ship – the 23-year-old ferry is nearing pension age – but because we had to ensure for New Zealand Inc that we could take goods and people needed between the islands while our longer term plans were finalised.
Through the GFC a decade ago, shipyards stopped building, and therefore ferries are still at a premium around the world. This has raised prices on all ships and seen few sales of second-hand ships.
A known quantity like the Kaitaki, which we had leased for the past 12 years and had been refitted for our purposes, was a good bet for the next short period at least and so we paid Irish Ferries to ensure she would be available after her lease ran out.
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However, like the rest of KiwiRail's Interislander fleet – the Aratere and the leased Kaiarahi – Kaitaki is nearing the end of her life.
She is a critical strategic link for New Zealand for both goods and people. Our ships carry 800,000 passengers – many international tourists – between the islands each year and are a vital part of the New Zealand supply chain and tourism strategy. Tens of thousands of trucks cross the Strait on our ferries each year. The rail-enabled Aratere sees 1000 trains a year drive straight into the hull carrying goods for supermarkets, grain, gas, wood products and aluminium, vital commodities for communities in Christchurch and beyond, or for shipping north to be exported.
As we saw when the Kaikōura earthquake hit in 2016, the Cook Strait ships are a vital lifeline for our vulnerable capital city and for the top of the South Island. Planning the future of our ferries is as much a decision for NZ Inc, as it is for KiwiRail.
And so for the past 18 months we have had a team of people working on a future strategy for the fleet and the port facilities they use. New Zealand needs new ships, built for our specifications and requirements. Our future freight and tourism needs will require bigger ships, and our ports at Wellington and Picton need to be able to handle them.
Rail-enabled ships have been an important part of KiwiRail's business since August 1962 when the Aramoana – meaning 'pathway across the sea' – began service. But a key decision for our future needs is whether to leave a rail deck on the new ships or transfer the cargo from trains to trailers for the crossing. This process, known as road-bridging, is already used when our rail ferry is in dry dock for maintenance.
In the next couple of months the results of our investigations and consultation with our people, our union partners, customers and stakeholders will be known. The size and number of ships in our new fleet, and the type best suited to our future freight and tourism needs, will be decided. Whatever the result, new ships will deliver more capacity, increased resilience, better fuel efficiency and greater reliability for our customers.
Importantly, new ships will also improve the journey for our large number of tourist passengers. Interislander service is second to none – our approval ratings from passengers are in the 90 per cent mark – but new facilities on a new ship will be an added bonus.
Once the decision is made we will embark on the next stage of our future fleet programme – building the new ships that will continue to unite New Zealand across that most tempestuous of barriers, Cook Strait.
The Dominion Post