Politicians' blame game begins over Aratere ferry grounding

The Interislander ferry Aratere has run aground in Picton Harbour after a steering failure saw it hit the shore around 10pm on Friday.

It comes after a week of failures that raise questions about the country's aging infrastructure.

On Saturday night, Aratere's bow remained stuck on the shore of Picton Harbour until an effort to tow it free at high tide in a few hours.

A vital supply link between the North and South Islands now jammed nose-first into the shoreline.

The Interislander's Aratere ferry is stuck - having run aground on its way out of Picton.

Locals watching from early morning; the safety of those on board priority number one.

"Extremely shocking, extremely devastating, been in touch with the crew. They are well, unfortunately very fatigued - that's to be expected - and obviously, crew welfare is one of our main priorities," said Holly Payne of the Nelson Maritime Union.

That's because they were stuck there from 10pm last night after a steering failure sent the ferry onto the beach.

The freight vessel had eight truck drivers and 39 crew on board. No one was injured. They've all since come off - replaced by a fresh crew. But the ferry hasn't moved.

"We're putting a plan together and coordinating that with a number of different stakeholders as we finalise our plan," said Interislander executive general manager Duncan Roy.

While this is a significant incident, the message is it could've been much worse.

"We got lucky on this one. I wouldn't like to see us relying on luck for the future," said Marlborough Mayor Nadine Taylor.

The grounded ferry.
The grounded ferry. Photo credit: Marlborough District Council / Supplied

Late last year the Coalition Government canned plans to purchase two new ferries and terminals because of budget blowouts.

"A Ferrari is not the only car in the garage," Finance Minister Nicola Willis said at the time. "I think it's time we see if there's a Toyota Corolla that might be able to do the job."

The Interislander has been plagued with issues. There's been delays, disruption and even a mayday call when a ferry lost power.

The latest mishap brought on a rash of politicians and the blame game began.

"I probably shouldn't be saying this but you might have to question whether KiwiRail are the right people to be operating the ferries," said National MP Stuart Smith.

"The Government does need to take responsibility for governing and the decisions they make about the future," Green MP Julie Anne Genter said.

"KiwiRail needs to take their responsibilities of maintaining their assets incredibly seriously," Transport Minister Simeon Brown said.

And Kiwirail says it has - with the Aratere having just had an upgrade only weeks ago, including its steering system.

"Obviously it's serious that we've had a ship grounded so we'll look to the root-cause investigation. But we have invested significant money and time recently in upgrading the steering system," said KiwiRail CEO Peter Reidy.

But Reidy didn't want to discuss the future plans for the Interislander at all today.

"The work that's going on to look at the option now of what we do with these ships? That's not a discussion for today, and that will be a discussion for future times," he said.

But clearly, some people do - with one person calling to "blame the Prime Minister" for "cancelling the new ferries" at the KiwiRail press conference on Saturday.

But the Transport Minister said the call to can the ferries was the right one.

"Decisions were made. We are committed to the resilience, we are committed to new ships," Brown said.

But he won't give a timeline on when that might be. Marine experts say we cannot wait any longer.

"Well I think they've had the warnings and I think this is the kind of like - it can't go any further, because the only place you can go after this warning is an actual catastrophe," said Maritime Union of New Zealand communications officer Victor Billot.

A catastrophe appears to have been averted today. But the ferry is still stuck on the shore.