Where are the signs?

In Newsletter Editorial5 MinutesBy Dave McCoidJanuary 26, 2024

As the curtain fell on 2023 I watched the KiwiRail Interislander Cook Strait ferry replacement project flounder, and like the boats themselves regularly demonstrate, shudder to a halt. As I often do, I wondered where the sign was. Anyone who has read my writings will know I think there’s a lack of critical signage in critical places, signage that means something, and resets a primary focus.

In the infrastructure, transport, and economic development ministries, is there a big sign that says ‘Those boats are the primary surface modality linking the two halves of our nation’? I feel that sign in particular has been lacking in recent years.

Like many, I was buoyed at the thought of someone in the nation’s top job with an understanding of ‘earn prior to consume’, and ‘prosperity is a result of endeavour’, heralding a new era of expenditure accountability. However, I did think hacking the Interislander project off at the plimsoll line a bold move. It instantaneously put the new government on some pretty severe notice – to come up with something of equal solution, fast. That’s if the government does actually believe in the earning and endeavour bit.

Of all the dysfunction apparent in New Zealand’s transport infrastructure currently, the KiwiRail Interislander ferries must be close to getting the Oscar for abysmal; and that’s no indictment on the fine people at all levels in the organisation who daily make a silk purse from a sow’s ear. It’s a reflection of non-existent reinvestment far above their pay grade.

Such is the state of the floating assets and our inability to rescue them the event of serious failure in bad conditions, the Interislander operation could in no way be labelled ‘safe’ by 2024 standards. And yet we are back to square one on the replacement programme. The ex-Air New Zealand boss [Luxon] certainly didn’t sign off on that decision through an aviation lens – meaning it’s not just plane crashes that kill people.

Not withstanding safety, think about economics. The national freight task is set to double in the next three decades and the bulk of that increase will be transported by road – except for the 100-odd kilometres between the two main islands that will involve boats. The mayhem, backlogs, and delays at either end cripple today’s freight task; no less tomorrow’s. Then of course the question: how on earth are you going to foster inter-island economic growth and development if the KiwiRail Interislander ferries are only marginally more effective than Mongolia’s merchant navy?

The Interislander project should have been the last to get ankle-tapped in my view. With it we actually had the chance to fix something – properly. For a good while we could have turned away, and focused on something else, with the only requirement a third big boat in the next five to 10 years to cope with increasing capacity.

Yes, they wanted more money. Give it to them, with some conditions if you wanted, like a ‘sharpshooter’ appointed from the private sector to make sure it’s going to the right place. When you think of the money frittered away in the economy on non-productive dross, against the additional amount required for the ferry project, and what that meant in the context of economic contribution over the next  20 years, it really is infuriating.

No, instead, we’re back to planning something else. Another nasty patch, no doubt.

Let’s at least hope the rebirthed project starts with a simple sign above the project office door that outlines in one sentence, what is actually at stake here.

All the best,

Dave McCoid
Editorial Director