Phil Taylor is a Weekend Herald and New Zealand Herald senior staff writer.

Changing course for the Interislander

The trip on the Interislander to the South Island is possibly the country's most beautiful ride; a rite of passage for thousands of New Zealanders and tourists every year. Now the Government is thinking of shifting the ferry terminal to a windswept beach that looks like Dunkirk. Phil Taylor discovers why

The Interislander may no longer stop at Picton.  Photo / Mark Mitchell
The Interislander may no longer stop at Picton. Photo / Mark Mitchell

"Beautiful, beautiful," exclaims Quentin Pierreux, a visitor from Belgium as he gazes at blue bays and green coves that slip by the cross-strait ferry as it wends its way on a perfect summer day down Queen Charlotte Sound. The ferry's destination is Picton, the town that has welcomed ferries from Wellington for half a century and may soon do so no longer.

The Government will likely abandon the Marlborough Sounds route if the numbers that apparently stack up for a move to Clifford Bay stand final scrutiny. Picton business owners can't sell until a decision is made. Since the town lost its freezing works in 1982 the ferries have been its bread and butter. Townfolk are anxious, though a minority say it could be the making of the place - the impetus it needs to develop the tourist potential on its doorstep and become a destination rather than a gateway.

On the voyage from Wellington across Cook Strait and through the Marlborough Sounds, a world-class scenic cruise comes with the price of a commuter ticket. "I think I am already falling in love with your landscape." says Pierreux, who adds that it is difficult to escape the impact of people in his compact nation of 11 million and hills that scarcely top 800 metres.

"You have so much wilderness here."

Pierreux is among two dozen passengers on the observation deck as the ferry approaches Picton. They seem undeterred by the pungent waft of lanolin from sheep-laden trucks parked below. Most have an opinion about the proposed move 50km south as the crow flies to Clifford Bay and the open-sea trip it would entail.

"Surely they will have to do both," says British visitor Stuart Miles, "Most tourists would come this way and the people with the sheep would go the other way." Probably not. The Wellington-Picton ferries carry one million passengers annually, each paying about $60. That is a lot of money for the Clifford Bay operators to give up. Besides, would enough people want to sail to and from Picton to make it economic to operate a ship big enough to comfortably cross moody Cook Straight?

English tourists Brian and Marilyn Logan tell the Weekend Herald this matches the ferry trip to Vancouver Island for spectacle and they want to know what Clifford Bay has to offer them. "You want somewhere to stay when you get there," said Marilyn.

Right now there is nothing at Clifford Bay, other than a salt plant and a small DoC campsite. It is as greenfields a site as you get. If it gets the tick from the Government later this year, nearly half a billion dollars will be spent building a breakwater, a ferry terminal and rail yards at the southern end of the 20km-long bay. Services for passengers, such as rental car agencies would be available but no town is planned. The hamlet of Ward, the nearest settlement, could be looking at a bonanza.

"It's time and it's money and that trumps the beauty of the scenery," said ferry passenger Kevin Tantrum, of Napier. He took the words right out of Gerry Brownlee's mouth. A week later the Transport Minister told the Marlborough Chamber of Commerce that Picton "is not driving any decision-making".

The driving force is freight efficiency. A terminal at Clifford Bay would cut nearly two hours from the trip between Wellington and Christchurch. That's 30 minutes off the strait crossing, another 50 minutes from the overland trip by road and 80 minutes by rail. KiwiRail would save a third of its fuel bills by eliminating the hills between Picton and Clifford Bay which require two locomotives.

National freight is predicted to double during the next 30 years. The level of goods carted in and out of Christchurch is expected to soar as the city rebuilds and farm produce rises from increasing irrigation of the Canterbury plains. Brownlee - a Christchurch MP whose family has had a bach in the Marlborough Sounds for generations - told the gathering that enabling investment in infrastructure was an important aspect of delivering the growth policies the National Government was elected on. "There is no do nothing option."

A Wellington-Lyttelton ferry service was ruled out because it would take three hours longer than the current route. If Clifford Bay was not chosen, then Picton would need to be upgraded and Picton comes with speed restrictions to stop ferry wash damaging beaches.

Clifford Bay offers more crossings by bigger ships. But some locals don't accept it is about freight capacity. The Picton ferries are understood to be operating at about 30 per cent of capacity on average, a figure that had increased only fractionally. But the prediction of a doubling in freight over three decades is based on the 2008 National Freight Demand Study which predates the Christchurch earthquakes.

"I think the Government's driving force is getting stuff from Auckland to Christchurch and beyond as quickly and cheaply as possible," says Marlborough mayor Alistair Sowman.

The proposed site has its sceptics. It is a shallow bay of shifting sands that is prone to strong winds and would require ongoing dredging.

"Nothing has changed," says Picton motelier Doug McDonald. "The bay is still the same. The current is the same. It's prone to winds strong enough to sandblast your car. I almost hope they go because it's Dunkirk round there."

McDonald is referring to the fact Clifford Bay has been looked at before. A ferry terminal was proposed there in the 1920s and in 1997 TranzRail (now KiwiRail) did everything bar build it. It got the necessary 39 consents, the Marlborough District Council rezoned the area a "port zone", and the transport company bought adjacent land for ferry and rail-associated businesses. Financial difficulties was the likely reason TranzRail didn't proceed, a KiwiRail spokeswoman told the Herald.

It is still a port zone and KiwiRail still owns the land. Consents would need to be applied for again, a process estimated to take more than two years.

Building the terminal which on 1997 consents would involve trucking in 1.9 million cubic metres of rock to build a 2.4km reclamation and breakwater and 100,000 cubic metres of dredging would give Marlborough's economy a one-off boost.

The business case was finished last August. A Government-appointed taskforce is now testing its underlying assumptions and is due to tell Brownlee about the middle of the year whether Clifford Bay will work. Cabinet will make a decision soon after. If it goes ahead, expressions of interest for financing, building and running the terminal could be called for by this time next year, construction could begin in 2016 and the terminal could be operating by 2020, according to the Transport Ministry.

The Government has indicated it does not want to own the terminal. Many believe that if the estimated $422 million construction cost is covered by freight and shipping companies, such as KiwiRail, it will happen. Some refer to the example of a $350 million convention centre to be Alistair SowmanJohn

Reuhmanbuilt in Auckland by Sky City, which is negotiating with the Government to add more poker machines.

Kaikoura would benefit from a ferry terminal at Clifford Bay and Hanmer would become a stop-over option on the way south or to the West Coast via Lewis Pass. But it is sobering not just for Picton but for Blenheim - and for Nelson, which relies on the ferries for 30 per cent of its freight.

The question is, says Sowman, how many ferry passengers emerging on to the main highway will turn right? Many fear Picton could become a cul-de-sac.

Sowman says too little work has been done to estimate the impact on the region and the Government is refusing to make public a preliminary report that has been done. "We want them to do a robust study of what the impacts might be and to stick it on the table alongside their financial analysis because once [Clifford Bay] stacks up financially, anything else might not seem so important."

The council is not against Clifford Bay if it is best for the country, he says.

"We will have to deal with the outcome whatever it is. We have talked to people and had meetings. We have individual stories but we need a better analysis of what that impact is going to be because if the ferries go to go Clifford Bay we will be suggesting to the Government that we might need a bit of a hand because it is going to be a job of rebranding Picton." One possible way would be to free up some of the Picton foreshore - rail alone takes up 86ha - currently dominated by the ferry operations.

Picton is a town of one-night stands. Most motel stays are for a single night and a survey of cars coming off the ferries noted nearly 90 per cent head out of town. It is as though travellers, in their haste to get somewhere else, miss Picton's appeal. Lonely Planet didn't. "Picton manages to be touristy and transient but low-key and genuine at the same time," the guidebook says. It also notes its seasonal appeal. "Half asleep in winter but hyperactive in summer ... it is the best place from which to explore the Marlborough Sounds and tackle the Queen Charlotte Track."

If the ferries go, Picton will have no choice but to reinvent itself but Brownlee's quip that it could become the Queenstown of the north hit a nerve with locals, who asked, "Where's our international airport and our skifields?" Rebranding also takes time that the town's typically older business owners do not have.

The loss of the ferries and associated rail will likely drain Picton of families. Sowman says the principal of Queen Charlotte College is worried about the impact on the school's roll. The council estimates 200 jobs in Picton would be affected directly and up to 500 indirectly.

"We started making a list and got down to the people who did the linen for the ships," says Sowman.

"The rental cars and motels are the obvious ones but it filters right down. The impact on Picton is quite scary."

Business owners are trapped. "They can't sell a business, they can't get investment loans at the moment because people don't know [what's going to happen]. All that has ground to a halt."

Destination Marlborough predicts a reduction of 20 per cent on the $229 million the region earned from visitors in 2011, including a loss of 600,000 visitor nights. On the opportunities side of the ledger, a cycleway could be built on the defunct rail line, the Sounds could be positioned as a cruising ground for superyachts with specialist services in Picton and neighbouring Waikawa, and more made of it as a port of call for cruise ships. John Reuhman, owner of EcoWorld Aquarium on the town's waterfront, is among a minority who believe that without the ferries Picton will eventually transform into a successful eco-tourism destination and a place where people come to escape and revitalise. "The railway land would be perfect for spas," he says. "I only see a bright future."

On a morning on which low cloud added to Clifford Bay's austere beauty, Max McCulloch from Renwick and Leon Dawes from Blenheim are on the beach at the end of Cable Station Rd. Other than a couple of moki and a kahawai the fishermen have hooked from the surf, which flap on the sand beside them, they have the place to themselves. Both mention how shallow the bay is. McCulloch has fished here for 50 years and came here with his Post Office job to look after the cable station. It's a house now. "The cable to Lyall Bay is still there," said McCulloch, nodding in the direction of a length of thick rust-red wire protruding from the sand.

The cable was laid in 1926 on the shortest viable route between the islands. That geographical fact may bring the ferries here too.

Fears for the future

A Picton motel owner says if the ferries go he might turn the business into a retirement village and move in.

"It will be devastating," says Doug McDonald, who with wife Heather bought Aldan Lodge in 1993 after selling their farm in Southland. "Seventy per cent of our customers are related to the ferries."

The cost of Clifford Bay had gone up at almost every mention in the current debate, from $200 million to the current figure of $422 million, which McDonald thinks is light. An independent study a decade ago had estimated it at about $700 million, he said.

"I can't see how they are going to make Clifford Bay pay. If they are going to spend a billion dollars on it, wouldn't it be better to spend that on Lyttelton?"

The debate had a strong sense of deja vu for the McDonalds, who bought their business just before TranzRail went through the consent process for a ferry and rail terminal at Clifford Bay in the 1990s.

McDonald is worried about the likely impact on the town. He doubts railway workers would want to commute 140km each day to Clifford Bay. "The loss of those workers would be pretty dramatic for the town."

He and his wife have come to love the place and he says it can reinvent itself but is limited because it lacks a winter tourist season. Without the ferries, visitors could perhaps do more on the harbour, he says, but the log port in nearby Shakespeare Bay would stay and so it was unlikely to become a beach resort.

"It's a lovely place and possibly a bit of a secret. But let's have the beauty of the place and the one million ferry passengers coming through, or it's likely to remain a secret."

"We can't retire because the money is in the business. I think we will turn ourselves into a retirement village and move in."

Ferry timetable

Now: Government-appointed taskforce checking business case for move to Clifford Bay

Mid 2013: Taskforce reports to Cabinet, followed by decision

2016: Construction begins on new ferry terminal (if approved)

2020: New terminal opens

Advantages of Clifford Bay

Trims up to 110 minutes off freight between Wellington and Christchurch

* More trips by bigger ships makes it better able to handle expected increase in freight Impact on Picton/Marlborough

* Picton accommodation down 40-80 per cent.

* $46 million hit on annual visitor spend in Marlborough

- NZ Herald

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