Cook Strait rail ferries

Page 5 – Branding the Cook Strait ferries

In their early years the ferries’ hulls were pale green – or ‘puke’ green, the unkind suggested. They had white superstructures and buff masts and funnels. A green funnel badge sported the letters ‘NZR’ lest anyone be left in any doubt who owned the things. This livery was tweaked slightly in 1970 when the funnel badge was replaced by Railways’ new stylised red-white-and-black logo, which after 1983 escaped the confines of the badge and oozed its way across the entire funnel.

The 1980s brought the first of several shake-ups for the old Railways Department. In 1982 it became the New Zealand Railways Corporation, a state-owned enterprise. In 1990, it became New Zealand Rail Ltd and three years later was sold to the government’s advisers on the business, merchant bankers Fay, Richwhite & Co. They teamed up with United States rail operator Wisconsin Central and United States investor Berkshire Partners. In 1995 they changed its name to Tranz Rail. Nine unhappy years later, the floundering business became Toll New Zealand Consolidated Ltd after being bought by Australia’s Toll Holdings.

All that chopping and changing naturally changed the promotion and appearance of the ferries. The old Railways Department launched the service somewhat wordily as ‘Cook Strait Inter-Island Rail and Road Service’ – no branding then. In 1984 it got hip and shortened that to Searail.

In 1989 it got positively romantic, going for Interisland Line. ‘We are turning into a cruise line’, the corporation’s chief executive said. Ocean-liner white replaced puke green on the hulls, and the ships’ funnels sported stylised dolphins, honouring Pelorus Jack. The dolphins also gambolled across a ‘funnel’ on the ferry shuttle bus that was so naff-looking that one driver refused to be photographed beside it, and another told a reporter he hoped it’d fall off.

But David Johnson noticed improvements:

While the Interisland Line’s initial comparison “Shades of the Love Boat” was overstating the degree of change and the nature of the vessels, the ferries became user-friendly.

The line’s Aussie owners refrained from putting kangaroos on the funnels, but they dumped the dolphins. The ships’ stacks now sprout ferns. Toll named its ferry division Interislander.

How to cite this page

'Branding the Cook Strait ferries', URL:, (Ministry for Culture and Heritage), updated 30-Apr-2020