Marlborough mayor calls for 'safe and resilient' Cook Strait service after ferry grounding

By Adam Burns of RNZ

Friday's grounding of the Aratere Interislander ferry shores up long-time calls for investment into the ageing fleet, Marlborough mayor Nadine Taylor says.

The Cook Strait ferry is grounded at Titoko Bay near Picton and will likely remain there until Sunday after efforts to refloat the vessel were abandoned.

The ferry had been on a freight-only sailing when it suffered a steering failure and crashed at 9.45pm.

None of the 39 crew and eight commercial drivers on board were injured, and some had disembarked on Saturday morning.

KiwiRail said there had been no environmental damage.

Marlborough District Council mayor Nadine Taylor - who is Picton-based - said the government needed to ask further questions about how KiwiRail was looking after its ferries.

"Both as the Marlborough District Council, who has the harbourmaster authority here, and just as a Kiwi, we want to know that we've got a safe and resilient inter-island ferry service.

"I know that's something the government also wants to see. But I think we need to ask some questions around levels of maintenance and also what the future holds to ensure we do get that safe and resilient service that we all deserve."

Friday's event comes on the heels of criticism of KiwiRail by the Transport Minister Simeon Brown about the standards of its ferry maintenance.

As part of parliament's scrutiny week, Brown was before the transport and infrastructure committee on Thursday, and said the government had been concerned about KiwiRail's maintenance of its Cook Strait ferries.

"We also want KiwiRail to make sure they're maintaining their existing boats to the appropriate standards which has been a significant issue that we've been highly unimpressed with coming into government."

He said KiwiRail had in recent months been improving its maintenance protocols significantly from the "poor" processes it had in the past few years.

Plans to replace the Interislander ferry fleet were put on the backburner last year after the coalition government declined an appeal by KiwiRail for $1.5b of further funding.

The project was set to deliver two rail-enabled ferries by 2026.

Taylor, who continued to be in talks with the government, said she has been calling for investment into the network for a long time.

"We were well posed to host the new vessels if they were to come.

"We've been talking about the need to provide certainty around what the future of safe, resilient, inter-island travel looks like.

"Whether that's new vessels or very good near-new vessels, the current ones are at the end of life and we need to replace them."

Meanwhile, port operators at Picton Harbour said the grounding of the Aratere would restrict recreational boaties.

The council's harbourmaster enforced a 500m exclusion zone immediately following the grounding on Friday.

Port Marlborough chief executive Rhys Welbourn said users of the Picton marina would be impacted throughout Saturday.

"The exclusion zone is in place for the safety of the people and the vessel," he said.

"[It's] being directed by the harbourmaster.

"There are going to be wider impacts for recreational boaties and we just ask them for their patience while we work through this situation."

Ferries could still disembark and depart Picton Harbour on "a case-by-case basis", which was dependent on weather and maritime conditions, Welbourn said.

"We're managing traffic alongside the harbourmaster."

Managing the workload of the port's tug crews, who had been on the water all night, was also a key focus, he said.

"We prepare for these sorts of emergencies happening. We've got our team resourced and ready to go. We're just making sure that we're managing their fatigue.

"Our teams are very engaged and very busy, but we're confident we can handle [the situation]."