Ports of Auckland's controversial container terminal automation will not now be completed until late March next year - more than a year after promised rollout dates, and even then, it's not a firm commitment.
An operational notice on the Auckland Council-owned port's website said a detailed review of the project had found it "realistic and achievable" to complete the project and go live by late March 2022 - but this would depend on cargo volumes.
"If we feel that going live in March would jeopardise imports or the 2022 export season we will delay it."
The review follows a pause in the automation project - begun in 2016 and of an unknown cost - after an incident in June revealed a potential safety risk.
It also follows the June departure of chief executive Tony Gibson who shepherded in the automation project, and who told the council full automation would go live in April or May this year after several delays.
Auckland Council planning committee chairman Chris Darby has lashed the advisory - both for its content and the way it was presented.
"Why PoA has found it necessary to be so covert as to tell customers through an embedded link in an operational update that automation is not happening anytime soon, speaks volumes for the lack of transparency that's been evident for a very long time.
"How the automation go-live date has slipped to March 2022 at the earliest, and no guarantees there either, is mind-boggling.
"Council's call for a review of the automation project after going live needs relooking at. Getting that review under way sooner not later now appears crucial," Darby said.
The container terminal had been operating on a mixed manual and automated basis until the June incident. Freight handling productivity has suffered in the past year and a labour shortage has exacerbated issues at a time the port is under heavy cargo handling pressure from soaring global consumer demand in the wake of the pandemic outbreak.
Dividends to Auckland ratepayers have also reduced sharply as the port company put more money into its automation and growth project.
Since the June incident, the container port has been operating a manual system.
Critics have blamed the port's issues for worsening the pressures on New Zealand's freight supply chain and contributing to steep shipping cost rises for businesses. Tonnes of freight intended for Auckland has been diverted to the Port of Tauranga, to be railed back to Auckland.
During this time, the port has also been the subject of a damning independent health and safety report commissioned by the council after fatalities and injuries connected with its operations.
The notice advising of "a revised implementation plan" for automation said the project would be implemented in four stages with safety paramount.
"Each stage has milestones which must be met before the project can progress to the next stage and these milestones are based on safety reliability, productivity and operational readiness."
The notice said the first stage, systems acceptance testing, would start "shortly".
It would have no impact on operations. All the work for this stage would be done inside a small test area at the north of the terminal and there would be no productive container moves.
Stage 2 would be automation of part of Fergusson Terminal north berth, stage 3 was automation of all of this berth and stage 4, full automation of the Fergusson container terminal.
More detail on stages 3 and 4 would be released closer to the time, "but we can confirm that we will give eight weeks' notice to customers before stage 4 ... which still requires an 84-hour terminal shutdown", said the notice.
"We are also working to bring in overseas experts from the vendor for this roll-out plan which will greatly help the project. This on-site help was not available previously because of Covid-19 border restrictions."
The port, which has its own board of directors, has refused to reveal the cost of the long-running automation project. Industry observers believe it amounts to several hundred million dollars. The council has also declined to discuss the cost.