Ferry buyers needed, not tyre kickers

A vital link in the national transport system, or a badly-run white elephant which should be got rid of?

The Interislander ferry dilemma is a problem which the government had tried to place on the backburner, but it is a problem which will not go away.

As Aratere defied commands from the bridge and steered itself into the Picton foreshore on Friday night, Finance Minister Nicola Willis — who due to political pressure has just had to find more money, just after the Budget, to fund more cancer drugs — developed another expensive headache.

In mid-December Ms Willis turned down a KiwiRail request for an extra $1.47 billion to continue funding its ferry upgrade plan. Much of what has proven to be a money muncher of a project has been, or was intended to be, spent on infrastructure and land to dock and load two rail-enabled ferries to replace the current ageing Interislander fleet.

Ms Willis cancelled the contract for those vessels, famously calling them the Ferrari option when a Toyota Corolla might be available.

That is as may be, but at the moment a couple of Reliant Robins are navigating Cook Strait, when they haven’t broken down — as they have been doing all too often of late.

The one saving grace of Friday’s embarrassing grounding incident is that it happened on a benign stretch of coast in calm weather. Some of the worst weather in New Zealand barrels through Cook Strait, and it was pure luck that the Aratere tiki tour did not happen on a storm day, or in the vicinity of Wellington’s treacherous reefs.

Cook Strait Interislander ferry Aratere aground on Saturday. PHOTO: MARLBOROUGH DISTRICT COUNCIL ...
Cook Strait Interislander ferry Aratere aground on Saturday. PHOTO: MARLBOROUGH DISTRICT COUNCIL / SKYWORKS
There are about 4000 Interislander sailings a year. About 900 freight trains are on the rails throughout New Zealand on any given week, and many of those continue their journey after the country’s geography stops them at Wellington or Picton.

While ferry passenger traffic is not what it once was — air has long since won that battle — the vessels are still of vital importance for businesses.

And not just trains are onboard the ferries: so are many trucks. There were eight aboard Aratere on Friday night, and there are usually six to eight sailings a day, so that adds to what is already a considerable amount of freight being carried between the islands.

But therein lies the conundrum which faces the government. If it was a stretch of tarseal between Lyall Bay and Shakespeare Bay which was blocked to traffic it would be a relatively easy repair to complete.

But in this case it is the Tasman Sea in between, and that is a more problematic and more expensive part of State Highway 1 to navigate.

Not only expensive, but divisive. The four million New Zealanders in the North Island can most likely happily continue on their merry way without a ferry service, but for the other million of us living in the South Island this is a vital connection, both psychologically and economically.

Previous governments have disregarded this and privatised the ferry service, only for its obvious criticality to demand that the service once more become a public utility.

There is a commercially viable, private competitor to the Interislander operating between the islands, a fact which has spurred calls for the Interislander to be sold off. The incident on Friday, let alone other examples of KiwiRail inefficiencies, has only amplified those voices.

But that is to ignore both the importance of the state-owned service, and the economic vulnerability of the country should Bluebridge encounter similarly choppy seas and have its road traffic only services hindered in any way.

We are an island nation, and a sea link between those islands is not a "nice to have" — to use a current expression.

Prime Minister Christopher Luxon agrees with that sentiment: yesterday he called the ferries "critical infrastructure" and said the government was committed to putting appropriate vessels on the water before the useful life of the current fleet.

But he also wanted the new ferries, to be sourced from who knows where and who knows when, to be fit for purpose and a long-term solution.

Last week shareholding ministers received a report from an independent advisory group with recommendations about new Cook Strait ferries.

Mr Luxon said ministers needed time to digest the report’s contents before acting on its findings. Events of the weekend are a clear sign that they need to speed read the report and act promptly.