Cook Strait rail ferries

Page 6 – Strikes and strandings

The Cook Strait ferries were vital to the flow of freight and passengers between the North and South islands (especially before the days of cheap air travel). Any interruptions, whether they were caused by bad weather, mechanical problems or strikes and lockouts, inevitably hit the headlines and touched raw nerves.

The ships gained a reputation for feather-bedding, pilfering and waste. Critics wondered whether the accumulating banks of crockery thrown overboard by crew too lazy to wash it constituted a hazard to navigation. Ex-steward Ted Caldwell’s memoir Strikebound documents demarcation disputes, bar scams, peep shows in the crew's quarters, laziness and graft. Gerry Evans, a former Seafarers' Union official, recalled that one Arahanga crew was so bad at broaching rail freight that the crew members were known as ‘the Great Train Robbers’.

Not everyone agreed. Ex-seafarer Dave Share, in his memoir Oceans of time, dismissed Strikebound as ‘a novel’ and emphasised ‘an operation that required skill and teamwork to fulfill the hectic work schedule.’

'El Lemon'

Aratere slideshow

Apart from inevitable weather delays and sporadic strikes, the Cook Strait ferry service has been a highly reliable and safe operation – at least until the arrival of the Aratere in 1999. A string of mechanical breakdowns and other incidents saw this Spanish-built ship dubbed ‘El Lemon’, ‘Aradago’ or ‘Aratanic’. Read more …

Either way, industrial relations between management and unions were not always good, especially in the 1970s. Railways sometimes seemed more interested in moving its own rail wagons than people. In 1988, angered by cancelled sailings, passengers took matters into their own hands. After sleeping in the tatty old terminal and watching ferries come and go full of rail wagons while being told that there was no room for people, passengers blocked the railway line until promised higher priority for people and cars.

To unhappy travellers, disputes always seemed to coincide with school holidays and other peak periods, but was it as bad as people thought? Between 1986 to 1991 only 378 out of 21,654 sailings were cancelled because of industrial action. Weather and mechanical problems caused more sailing cancellations.

Several times between 1971 and 1983 the government launched ‘Operation Pluto’, using state domestic airline and air force planes to fly passengers and cars between Wellington and Blenheim during prolonged industrial disputes.

In 1994, things came to a head. This confrontation involved threats of lockouts or even of contracting out ship management to an international firm, as the privatised Interisland Line tried to claw back pay and conditions and to put the ships on 24/7 operations. In his memoir Where giants dwell, Gerry Evans recalled:

We also ended up with ninety days sick leave, increased from five. To balance this, we lost annual leave, with a three-year buy back, worth twenty-three thousand dollars to each seaman. The ferries would run twenty-four hours, that had to come, and was in our long-term interest, with the possibility of non-union ships in competition running a twenty-four hour service against the ferries.

More than 150 of nearly 500 crew jobs were axed. The old stereotypes still persist though – ancient TV reports of mum, dad and the kids stranded in their cars and worrying about who would feed their pets back home; of union officials with Pommy accents; and of bland Railways managers and even less helpful press releases. Although there has not been a major strike since 1994, the editor of New Zealand Marine News chuckled at public reaction to a brief dispute in September 2003. ‘Despite this ten-year strike-free period, passengers interviewed on television complained vociferously as if such disputes were still frequent and recent.’