Three Interislander ferries to be replaced by two rail-ready vessels
KiwiRail will replace its three ageing Interislander ferries with two purpose-built rail-ready vessels by 2024, but the shift will mean fewer jobs.
The upgrade decision comes after two years of investigation and consultation by KiwiRail to future-proof its Cook Strait fleet.
While the Aratere can accommodate rail now, the vessel will be replaced along with the Kaitaki and Kaiarahi – the three-strong fleet having reached the end of its useful life.
KiwiRail acting chief executive Todd Moyle said the company would start the process of procuring the new vessels, and establishing their cost and changes to terminal infrastructure next year.
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"Two new ferries will carry more freight, cars and passengers than the previous fleet which had a mix of rail ships, and ships that carried rail freight on wagons.
"This is about providing the best commercial, environmental and customer service outcomes for New Zealand. New ships will be built to the latest environmental specification," Moyle said.
The announcement has come about two months after plans for bigger Cook Strait ferries emerged in a report to Greater Wellington Regional Council's (GWRC) regional strategic committee.
The council report said the new vessels were due to arrive in 2022, and would require new terminal facilities and additional infrastructure.
With annual passenger numbers forecast to rise to 1.7 million by 2025, two sites for a new Wellington terminal were identified at Kings Wharf, the current home of competitor Bluebridge, and Kaiwharawhara.
On Monday, KiwiRail revealed it was working with stakeholders including Wellington and Marlborough ports over proposed multi-user terminals to accommodate the new vessels.
Those discussions were still in the early stages, Moyle said.
"This will be a significant investment for New Zealand, so the next stage of the project will determine financing and funding options.
"The benefits, however, will be significant in what new ships will deliver for tourism, freight flows, sustainability and transport resilience."
In an opinion piece published on Stuff in October, Moyle extolled the virtues of investing in the Interislander fleet, held up as a critical cog in the New Zealand Inc. machine.
"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.
"Our future freight and tourism needs will require bigger ships, and our ports at Wellington and Picton need to be able to handle them," Moyle wrote.
But KiwiRail conceded that once the new fleet began operating, there would be fewer crew jobs available.
It hoped natural attrition in the years leading up to the change would help ease the impact, while other staff members could also be redeployed to other areas.
"While fewer crew would be required with two ships, the four to five-year lead time before the ships come into service will allow for a managed transition," Moyle said.
The organisation has pledged to "work closely" with its union partners throughout the process. Rail and Maritime Transport Union has been contacted for comment.