The Interislander ferry line likes to market its Cook Strait ships as a place "where the journey becomes a destination".         Photo (C) Alan Calvert

Last week, as the 15-year-old Aratere was out of action yet again, wags on the waterfront were suggesting Interislander should also market the ship as an adventure tourism destination in its own right. It was Aratere's second, albeit minor, problem of the week, and followed a power failure on the 31-year-old Arahura last month. The three incidents amount to a further sign that all might not be well with Interislander's ageing rail ferries. Arahura, a veteran of more than 50,000 Cook Strait crossings, will be pensioned off next year and replaced by the Swedish-owned Stena Alegra, which had its own problems during a six-month charter with Interislander earlier this year.It was chartered as a replacement ship while the Aratere was in Singapore undergoing repairs after one of its propellers fell off in Cook Strait in November last year. Part of a propeller also dropped off the Stena Alegra, it incurred a gash in its side while berthing, and it also had a power failure in Wellington Harbour. Earlier this month Peter Reidy, chief executive of KiwiRail, which owns Interislander, conceded the company had a job on its hands to regain public confidence in the ferry operation.

After this week's cancelled Aratere sailings, group general manager operations Iain Hill said yesterday that the negative publicity had not affected freight and passenger bookings. "We've got more passengers on the three ships for this holiday period than we have had for the past three years.v"It's been a similar case on the freight side. I think people are starting to see now what we are trying to do."

He completely understood passenger and customer concerns over Wednesday's cancellation, especially given the time of year, but said safety had to be paramount."As always, the team worked quickly to identify and resolve the issue and minimise disruption to all customers. "In a 24/7 operation such as this, mechanical issues do occur from time to time and, in that respect, Interislander is no different from other transport operators. Our reliability levels are currently at 97.2 per cent for the fleet, with Aratere at 97.4 per cent."

Positively Wellington Tourism chief executive David Perks says ferry cancellations have little impact on the tourism sector - but they have an effect on the ferries' reputation.There is nothing in the tourism numbers to suggest Interislander's troubles have had a noticeable impact. "The occasional cancellation of a ferry doesn't have any more effect than the occasional cancellation of a plane."Where it might be felt is on the reputation side of things. Even though the ferries are only cancelled on an occasional basis, there's a perception out there that it happens quite frequently."

Perks says Wellington's tourism sector was more resilient to ferry breakdowns than Marlborough's because the capital has a more accessible airport. Also, at this time of year, most people wanting space on the ferries are generally those loading up their cars with camping gear because they are heading to the South Island."If you want to go camping, or spend your time lying on the beach in Nelson, then as long as you get there, that's the main thing."But while tourists in their cars will be a key part of the ferries' business over the next couple of months, for most of the year Interislander is a rail freight operation - and that's where some critics say it is going wrong.According to former Shipping Federation president Rod Grout, the five-year charter of Stena Alegra shows the board and management of KiwiRail have failed yet again to adopt modern and efficient freight shipping practices.

Neither Stena Alegra nor Interislander's other ship, Kaitaki, are rail ferries, and Interislander has introduced a freight system called "road bridging" to allow rail freight to be carried on them."Despite KiwiRail claims to the contrary, road bridging is a highly inefficient and comparatively costly way for long-haul rail freight to be moved regularly between the main centres," Grout says."The domestic freight market has transformed since last century, with container ports and ships delivering significant cost and logistical advantages for freight operators and customers."Yet KiwiRail has consistently failed to capitalise on this by clinging to its obsolete main trunk railway mentality on Cook Strait, with predictably worsening results and shrinking volumes."

He says the company should focus on the passenger, car and truck-trailer market as a proven income earner, and sub- contract or slot-charter existing container ships for its interisland rail freight."By progressively moving to this practice, KiwiRail would not only save tens of millions of dollars a year on operating costs, but would achieve very similar delivery times for non-urgent cargo."The question is whether the state-owned entity is willing to consider such a sensible option and save taxpayers a great deal of money, or dig itself deeper and deeper into a financial hole."On top of exorbitant capital costs, including a wholesale upgrade to the Stena Alegra to make it fit for purpose, high operating costs for road bridging rail freight are a recipe for commercial failure."It effectively means that KiwiRail's interisland rail operations will remain unprofitable for many years to come, with no relief in sight for taxpayers having to keep the service afloat."

Hill said the decision to charter the Stena Alegra had to be seen in conjunction with the group's new intermodal freight handling systems.Under the scheme, first introduced in 2011 when Aratere was in Singapore for its lengthening, rail freight is moved on to road trailers to travel across Cook Strait on the ferries and then moved back on to rail wagons at the other end. Hill said hundreds of new curtain-sided containers, which could be easily forklifted on and off trucks and rail wagons, were at the heart of the rail bridging system.Together with the extended Aratere, Interislander could now offer additional capacity through an extra train service between Auckland and Christchurch during the most critical time slots. Road Transport Forum chief executive Ken Shirley says the trucking industry has been through an intense "almost crisis period" in terms of its relationship with Interislander in the wake of Aratere's propeller shaft failure last year.

Up until Wednesday's missed Aratere sailings, he had been heartened by Interislander's performance over the past five months. Hill said the decision for Aratere not to sail on Wednesday afternoon was made by the skipper. "It was a safety issue. It was the master's call." There were protocols that had to be followed once any warning lights came on in the engine room.As Aratere approached its berth in Wellington on Wednesday, alarms were indicated on the control screen in the engine room, even though the ship was operating normally."As safety is paramount, the master made the call he was not prepared to sail until he understood the nature of the issue and her scheduled 2.45pm departure was cancelled to allow time to identify and repair the fault." The investigation revealed that vibration caused an instantaneous fault in the alarm system - a loose connection that possibly was at fault for only milliseconds.Testing was all that was required to verify all systems were working properly, he said.However, there were plans to reduce Aratere's sailing schedule next year, and to give it more regular rest days.

Interislander's Cook Strait rival is saying little about its opponent's troubles, but is clearly not inconvenienced by them.

Bluebridge was founded by Otorohanga Transport head Jim Barker in 1992. Its generally reliable Santa Regina and Straitsman ferries are almost fully booked over the next few weeks.

December 1998: The $106 million Spanish-built ferry had so many problems after entering service in 1999 that the crew nicknamed it "El Lemon". Problems first arose on the delivery voyage from Spain in December 1998 when the vessel experienced several minor technical problems.

February 1999: Power failure leaves the Aratere languishing in Wellington Harbour.

May 1999: Electrical failure cuts power to engines and brings ship to a virtual standstill.

September 1999: Smoke in engine room sends 250 passengers and 40 crew scurrying to emergency stations.

June 2000: Liferaft falls from the Aratere while docked in Wellington.

December 2000: Aratere blows an engine piston, causing delays for several weeks.

July 2003: Aratere crashes in to a rail ramp while docking in Wellington.

July 2004: Passengers on Aratere had a nightmare eight-hour journey from Picton to Wellington after the ship broke down in mountainous seas.

April 2005: Aratere, on a late-night freight sailing, is involved in a near miss with chemical tanker Bow De Jin off Eastbourne in Wellington Harbour.

July 2006: Aratere rams the trawler San Domenico in high winds while berthing in Wellington Harbour. February 2009: More than 100 passengers bumped off Aratere sailing after coupling holding a lifeboat fails.

April 2011: Aratere sails for Singapore for major $54 million (approx) refurbishment. Returns behind schedule in September 2011 with Singapore rats on board.

September 2011: MAF Biosecurity prevents Aratere from discharging possibly contaminated ballast water. MAF later relents and allows Interislander to dump the ballast in Cook Strait

November 5, 2013: Aratere loses a propeller while on a routine sailing from Picton to Wellington in Cook Strait. November 17, 2014: Technical electronic alarm problems result in Aratere missing a return sailing of Cook Strait.

Source : The Dominion Post