Wellington Scoop

Two new purpose-built inter-island rail ferries due in 2024

Report from RNZ
KiwiRail has confirmed plans to replace its three ageing Cook Strait ferries with two new, larger, purpose-built rail ferries.

Interislander’s current fleet, comprising the Kaitaki, Kaiarahi and the Aratere, is due to be replaced by 2024.

KiwiRail’s decision follows a two-year consultation process which found rail-enabled ferries were the most cost effective, efficient and best in the long-term.

The new boats will be able to carry more people and freight, and be faster, making six return sailings a day, the maximum.

The decision represents a shift by KiwiRail, which in the past dismissed rail ferries as “very rare and really expensive”.

KiwiRail acting chief executive Todd Moyle said that was a different era, when KiwiRail was comparing the cost of second-hand ferries versus buying new ones. But investigations found there was little difference in the price of a new rail ferry and a new non-rail ferry. “They’re an inter-generational investment,” Mr Moyle said.

“These are going to be around for 30-odd years so we need to make the right decision to ensure that we’ve got that long term resilient outcome. We’re a rail company we want to grow rail, we see that as being really critical for New Zealand.”

Rail and Maritime Transport Union general secretary Wayne Butson said KiwiRail’s decision represented a shift to sanity.

Only one existing ferry, the Aratere, can take rail. The other two rely on a system which involves loading containers off railway wagons onto rubber wheeled trailers, then driving the trailers onto the ferries.

This is a lengthier process, which Mr Butson said was also more labour intensive.

“Using rail ferries, you can have three people that load 1500 tonnes of freight onto the ferry. If you use road bridging you’ve got 30 people doing the loading and unloading.

“Safety issues around [the] interface between the passengers and the vehicles is significantly heightened.”

Mr Butson said in recent years KiwiRail had been dogged by short-term thinking, as shown by its decision to close workshops in Dunedin.

“We’re now all struggling with the difficulties that the closure of Hillside poses when you’re in a KiwiRail that’s trying to grow quickly to meet the needs of New Zealand, and also the wishes of the current government for increased wagons, carriages, locomotives.”

Mr Moyle said the new ferries would not come cheap, with Mr Moyle estimating they would cost more than $200 million each. A more accurate estimate will be known later this year.

Mr Moyle denied the decision was dependent on the will of KiwiRail’s political masters, saying the process began under National.

“The rail-enabled element is only one component of these ferries. We’ve had the largest tourism season on the Interislander and also commercial vehicles, trucks and other elements, so we’ve got the three bits that work on the ferry. We’ve had to make the decision based on all the elements.”

Both the union and KiwiRail said staff had welcomed the announcement even though it could signal job losses.

But Mr Moyle said reductions in staff numbers could be mostly dealt with by attrition given the new ferries were five years away.

The ships would likely to be built in Europe or Asia. Mr Moyle said while the bulk of the ferries would be a standard design, there will be elements that are customised for Cook Strait like the lower decks and the passenger areas.

Mr Butson said designing the ferry from scratch had its advantages. “There are now new hull configurations which are able to deal with the wake issue in terms of the [Marlborough] Sounds.”


  1. Kon, 21. January 2019, 16:53

    This is the best bit of infrastructure news I’ve read for awhile. In following it through, 10 out of 10 KiwiRail.

  2. Brent Efford, 21. January 2019, 17:05

    Yay for sanity! At last, KiwiRail has turned its back on the idiot policy of removing the rails from its ferries ‘to save money’, forcing rail freight to be transferred to rubber-tyred trailers for the Cook Strait crossing. This resulted in an impediment to rail transport’s ability to compete with ‘road all the way’ – rather like the forced CBD-edge termination of the Wellington rail transit spine. Coming on the heels of the saving of the NIMT electrification, this is clearly the result of a change in KiwiRail management and the end of governance by Tory politicians working towards a ‘managed shutdown’ of the rail system.
    Next steps: reopening of the Gisborne Line? Direction to LGWM to complete the Wellington rail network, not fragment it?

  3. Ross Clark, 22. January 2019, 0:30

    Brent – this is good news, but I suspect that it wasn’t Kiwirail’s “idiot policy” to remove the rails from its ferries. This was borne out during the NIMT de-electrification debacle. When the decision to keep the electrics in service was approved, the board made it clear that they had costed out keeping the electrics in service – and that it was going to come to a lot more than shifting to diesels.

    My guess is that previous National SoE/Transport/Treasury Ministers had made it abundantly clear to the Kiwirail Board that they could not spend more than was absolutely necessary to keep the traffic moving. Hence the use of leased ferries over several years.

    So, Kiwirail is benefitting from a change in policy from the top. Railfreight still has major challenges in competing with road freight across the Strait, but that is something for another post.

  4. Cecil Roads, 22. January 2019, 10:17

    Why not promote coastal shipping? Takes pressure of the State Highways and doesn’t require huge subsidies for rusting railways.

  5. Concerned Wellingtonian, 22. January 2019, 11:34

    As long as Bluebridge are allowed to use a berth which is actually accessible for pedestrians.

  6. Ross Clark, 23. January 2019, 3:10

    One thing which has not dawned on the union when they advocate more support for coastal shipping, is that there’s only one place where more coastal shipping traffic can come from, and it’s rail. Back in the day, Pacifica Shipping used to run overnight freight services between Wellington and Lyttelton. Presumably they weren’t commercially viable, so were eventually abandoned. There are some Lyttelton-Port of Tauranga services these days, but the frequency is limited.