Cook Strait rail ferries

Page 8 – Sailing into the 21st century

The new century brought mixed fortunes for Cook Strait’s ‘iron bridge’. Strait Shipping, which had started running between Wellington, Picton and Nelson in 1992 with a tiny freight ferry, had by the early 2000s muscled into the Interisland Line’s passenger/vehicle market with its second-hand ferries Santa Regina and Monte Stello, each a big step up from Strait’s freight-only RO-ROs.

In 2010 it strengthened its ‘Bluebridge’ service by replacing the older, less reliable Monte Stello with a five-year old Dutch-built ship which it renamed Straitsman in honour of its first little freighter. 

The Interisland Line sailed stormier seas. The railway company (then named Toll Rail) returned to public ownership in 2008 when the Labour-led government re-acquired the ailing business and renamed it KiwiRail. Interisland continued with its three ships, the passenger/vehicle/rail ferries Arahura and Aratere and the chartered passenger/vehicle ferry Kaitaki.

In 2011 KiwiRail decided to give the Aratere ‘a nose job and a new mid-section’ to improve fuel economy and boost carrying capacity ahead of the Rugby World Cup. In a $52 million job, Singapore’s Sembawang Shipyard cut the ship apart, added a finer bow, a 30-metre midsection, a third funnel, superior power generation capacity and updated public spaces. The rebuilt Aratere could now carry over 600 passengers as well as more rail wagons and commercial vehicles.

KiwiRail’s pride in this jumboisation turned to dismay when the ship experienced a series of incidents, including engine breakdowns and a brief detention in November 2011 by Maritime New Zealand. A few such bugs might have been expected after such major surgery and the ship appeared to settle down in 2012. That good stretch ended sharply early in November 2013 when the Aratere snapped a shaft and lost a propeller in the Marlborough Sounds, a serious and unusual incident.

The Aratere’s dropped prop threatened to torpedo Interislander’s summer busy season, leaving just the ageing Arahura to carry rail wagons. The authorities allowed the crippled ship to make a freight-only crossing each day until the passenger/vehicle ferry Stena Alegra arrived under short-term charter in late December. In February 2014 KiwiRail sent ‘El Lemon’ off to Singapore for an expensive repair job. The company estimated that its latest debacle might cost up to $30 million.

The other event of 2013, the decision to keep Picton as the South Island terminal, was more positive for both companies’ future fleet planning. The idea of building a ferry terminal at Clifford Bay near Lake Grassmere was not a new one – it had been canvassed for decades. In 2012-13, however, the government explored the option more thoroughly. Clifford Bay advocates argued that a new port would save about two hours in sailing and driving times. Against that, however, any new $500-million port would have to be purpose-built for just the ferries on a much more exposed coast.

Picton’s facilities needed upgrading to match trade growth projections, but it was an established tourist destination and was multipurpose, catering also to cement, log and cruise ship trades. In November 2013 the government decided to stick with Picton.

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'Sailing into the 21st century', URL:, (Ministry for Culture and Heritage), updated 21-Sep-2021

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