Rail ferries revolutionised interisland freight transport

Rail ferries began sailing on Cook Strait from 1962 as a result of existing operator the Union Steam Ship Company deciding in 1957 not to replace its ageing conventional ferry, Tamahine.

The decision sparked a chain of events that led to the Government building its own ferry roll-on, roll-off ferry and operating it through the Railways Department.

Because of their roll-on, roll-off capabilities, the rail ferries revolutionized interisland freight movement. Goods could be loaded and unloaded much more quickly than on the ageing Tamahine where cargo had to be hoisted into holds or onto decks by cranes and derricks.

The ferries enabled Cook Strait to become a near seamless link in the national rail and road network. Within little more than a decade, almost all general cargo travelling between the two islands had switched from conventional coastal shipping to the new rail ferries.

But when the Union company made its 1957 decision, all that was in the future. A Cook Strait Transport Enquiry Commission was established to consider the options. As well as finding replacement ferries, the committee considered the possibility of an air freight link between Blenheim and Wellington.

The ferry option was not the first to be considered for Cook Strait. A two-man study as part of the 1924 Royal Commission on railways considered a ferry service but came to the conclusion it would not be able to compete with conventional shipping.

This time, the ferry concept received the thumbs up. Conscious that Tamahine was due to be retired in 1962, the Government asked the Union company if it was interested in building and operating a new ship.

When the company declined, Prime Minister Sir Walter Nash announced the Government would go ahead itself, build its own ship and make it part of the Railway business.

The Scottish firm William Denny and Brothers Ltd of Dumbarton won the tender to build a ship capable of travelling at up to 20 knots and carrying 80 motor vehicles or 40 motor vehicles and up to 20 rail wagons.

A year ahead of delivery, the Minister of Transport announced that the ferry would be named Aramoana which translates as “pathway over the sea”.

In her first year of service, Aramoana carried 207 passengers, 46,000 motor vehicles and 181,000 tonnes of freight. This was double the target originally set and far ahead of Tamahine’s capacity.

While Aramoana was the responsibility of New Zealand Railways, the Union company was contracted to operate her during the early rail ferry days.

“The arrival of Aramoana was one of the most significant events in the nation’s transport history,” said Ray Munro, the railwayman who set up the original Rail Road Ferry Office and accepted the first bookings for Aramoana.

“The rail system now extended almost the entire length of the country,” he wrote in his memoir, Cook Strait Ferries as I knew Them. “For the first time a vehicle or railway wagon could be driven aboard a ship in one island and driven off in the other without having its load disturbed.”

The new service was immediately profitable. In 1967 by the time the second ferry, Aranui had come into service, the annual profit was almost half a million pounds, leading to pressure for lower fares and freight rates.

The Union company did eventually counter with two roll-on, roll-off vessels, Hawea and Wanaka, but both were sold within a decade of coming into service.

Aramoana and Aranui were followed in 1972 by Arahanga, Aratika in 1974, Arahura in 1983, Aratere in 1999 and Kaitaki in 2005.

Between 1999 and 2005, fast ferries operated on Cook Strait but a combination of rising fuel prices and the need to reduce speeds through the Marlborough Sounds and Wellington harbour undermined their viability.

Sources: Interislander, a Ferry Tale, Kevin Ramshaw, 2012.