Cook Strait rail ferries

Page 2 – 'The floating bridge'

Before 1962 rail struggled to compete with ships for inter-island business. If you wanted to send goods between the North and South islands by rail, your cargo had to be unloaded from wagons into ships on one side of the strait and laboriously unloaded and put back into wagons on the other side before resuming its journey.

The road/rail ferries changed that. Now workers rolled rail wagons through their big stern doors on one island and off again on the other in a fraction of the time taken by old-fashioned ships’ derricks. That meant that an Oamaru flour miller could load a wagon at his mill siding and have it sent straight through to a Napier bakery, reducing pilfering, damage, cost and time.

Above all, time. Working cargo by conventional means was very slow. When delays caused by weather, labour shortages and industrial disputes were factored in, a coaster seldom moved more than 300 tonnes of cargo a day at Wellington. Now Railways staff could load more than that in an hour.

What was the public reaction to the Aramoana's arrival? Great service, shame about the price. Many expected a ship run by the 'people’s railway' to be cheap, but the Railways Department had a fine line to tread. Charge too little and the airlines and shipping companies would scream ‘unfair competition’. Charge too much and the Minister of Railways might find himself defending the prices in Parliament. Nevertheless, the department’s 1963/4 financial report showed that the ship contributed $1.07 million to Railways' working profit of $1.077 million. It was a cash cow.

In real terms, fares and charges for passengers and cars have remained relatively stable over the last four decades, despite the promised benefits of privatisation and competition. One thing that has changed dramatically is the frequency of service. In 1962 the Aramoana ran one voyage a day (except Sunday), leaving Wellington at 10 a.m. and Picton at 2.20 p.m. By 2003 the Tranz Rail ferries Arahura, Aratere and The Lynx were each making three return trips every day. By this time Strait Shipping also had two ships on the run, the Bluebridge ferry Santa Regina and the freighter Kent.

How to cite this page

''The floating bridge'', URL:, (Ministry for Culture and Heritage), updated 17-May-2017