The managing director of a freight company says ongoing Interislander ferry cancellations are killing the business, describing the situation as a “continuing spiral”.
Canterbury Bulk Freight has had trucks parked up on both sides of Cook Strait this week, managing director Alex Cowdell said on Tuesday.
“Nobody knows anything. The poor old guys in the terminals have no clue when they are going to be sailing.”
This latest headache for KiwiRail, which owns Interislander, was caused by a large wave damaging a door onboard the Kaitaki on Monday. Sailings on the ferry have been cancelled while the damage is assessed in more detail and repaired.
The beleaguered ferries had already endured a “horror run” in the 2022 financial year when one in five sailings were cancelled.
But the worst was yet to come when the Kaitaki lost power in the middle of Cook Strait in early 2023 and started drifting towards Wellington’s south coast with 864 people on board.
There have since been further mechanical problems, cancellations, and passengers left stranded and frustrated by what former Transport Minister Michael Wood called a “degree of chaos”.
Cowdell felt the cancellations were getting worse.
“It’s just a continuing spiral at the moment, there don’t seem to be any answers.”
The company is affected every time there is a ferry outage, Cowdell said.
“It is a recognisable part of our operation dealing with that section of water [Cook Strait]. When it’s weather-related, we all understand but when it’s mechanical, it does create a major issue because generally those things you don’t see coming.”
Cowdell said the company is carrying the cost of delays by paying staff who are waiting around with nothing to do.
KiwiRail has issued countless apologies for the inconvenience these cancellations cause but has stressed safety is the top priority.
Interislander operations general manager Duncan Roy said they hugely value freight customers, who are the backbone of their business.
“While this week’s cancellations were caused by the weather, we know that any disruption is inconvenient to the freight sector and work hard to accommodate these customers in a disruption,” Roy said.
“This week we put on additional freight-only sailings of Aratere following the cancellation of Kaitaki sailings due to weather-related impacts.”
Interislander offered refunds for cancelled bookings but did not compensate freight customers for disruptions, in accordance with commercial terms, Roy said.
A North Island truck driver told the Herald the delays throw rosters and workloads into disarray, with drivers running out of hours in their shifts to get the job done.
He said missed connections mean produce is not getting on to supermarket shelves when it should be.
“Everybody is very understanding in the sense that it’s the ferries and you can’t do anything about it but it does start to create problems with the staffing side of things and keeping the trucks moving and getting them in the right place at the right time.
“You end up with an imbalance of trailers between the islands.”
Open Country Dairy and Halls Refrigerated fleet group transport manager Brett Hamilton said the disruptions have resulted in decreased productivity across the freight sector.
“This in turn leads to inefficiency in the supply chain upstream to producers, and downstream to the end consumer. We receive no insurance or compensation for such events,” Hamilton said.
Roy has previously said KiwiRail now has several measures in place to enhance the resilience of the fleet.
“Our ship inspection and maintenance programme includes more frequent scheduled maintenance breaks, where we take our ships out of service more regularly for maintenance checks in wet and dry dock environments, and we are instituting a new approach to managing our assets and fleet.”
KiwiRail has signed a $551 million contract with a South Korean shipyard to build two new mega-ferries to replace the ageing and increasingly unreliable fleet.
They are due to arrive in 2025 and 2026.
However, there is concern the new terminals for them won’t be ready in time and Treasury has called in independent consultants to review the cost pressures KiwiRail is facing.
KiwiRail has said it is constantly reviewing the project to ensure the necessary infrastructure is in place when the new ferries are delivered.
Georgina Campbell is a Wellington-based reporter who has a particular interest in local government, transport, and seismic issues. She joined the Herald in 2019 after working as a broadcast journalist.