A vital lifeline during an unprecedented emergency

Walter Rushbrook explains how the crucial role Interislander played in New Zealand’s emergency response to the pandemic has helped to cement its future in the ferry industry

A vital lifeline during an unprecedented emergency
New Zealanders are returning to Interislander’s ferries now that travel restrictions have eased

When the Covid-19 pandemic struck in March 2020, New Zealand’s Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern encouraged the nation to come together as a ‘team of five million’ and enter one of the world’s strictest lockdowns to swiftly supress cases and stop the spread of the virus.

State-owned transport operator KiwiRail and its ferry brand Interislander played a crucial role in the country’s emergency response, transporting hundreds of key workers between the North and South Islands to ensure all New Zealanders had continued access to food, essential supplies and medical care.

“We very quickly worked to keep goods and people moving between islands, even during the lockdown,” says Walter Rushbrook, executive general manager at Interislander. “We’re really proud of how Interislander and KiwiRail came together to support Aotearoa New Zealand’s ‘team of five million’ – it’s highlighted the important role we play in supporting the nation’s economy.”

Since the lockdown lifted, Interislander’s ferry services have remained in high demand with locals.

“We’ve seen more New Zealanders taking time to explore their own backyard while the restrictions on international travel have been in place,” says Rushbrook. “This increased demand for domestic travel, including journeys across Cook Strait on Interislander, has also been driven by our own marketing efforts and those of the local tourism bodies. We hope – and would expect – to see New Zealanders continuing to enjoy all that our country has to offer even as our borders slowly reopen.”

To ensure that Interislander’s Cook Strait service remains a vital lifeline for passengers and freight customers long into the future, KiwiRail is constructing its first new purpose-built ferries in more than 20 years.

Designed by Danish naval architecture firm OSK-ShipTech, the two rail-enabled vessels will be built at the Hyundai Mipo Dockyard in South Korea and are expected to enter service in 2025 and 2026. They will be designed to operate using different energy sources but will initially rely on battery power when docking and local shore power facilities while berthed in port. This will make them more efficient than the three vessels they will be replacing on the Cook Strait route, contributing to a 40 per cent reduction in Interislander’s carbon emissions immediately and supporting KiwiRail’s goal to be carbon neutral by 2050.

Interislander’s newbuilds will be able to carry twice the number of passengers, double the trucks and vehicles, and 300 per cent more rail wagons than the ferries they are replacing. To accommodate the vessels, KiwiRail and Interislander will also redevelop and upgrade the terminal infrastructure at both Kaiwharawhara in Wellington and Waitohi Picton.

“Economic shocks provide an opportunity to reflect and prepare for an uncertain future,” says Rushbrook. “In our case, we focused our efforts on creating a future where new ships and terminals will enable us to provide a more resilient connection between islands. KiwiRail and Interislander aim to continue connecting people and markets across New Zealand in the decades ahead. We will do so while lowering the carbon impact of our services.” Rushbrook is confident that the new ferries and terminals will offer an ideal opportunity for Interislander to attract new passengers and turn loyal customers into brand ambassadors.

“We always love welcoming new customers to our terminals and ships,” he says. “No matter whether it’s their first or hundredth trip across the Cook Strait, we aim to provide passengers with the great services and experiences they have come to expect from us. Interislander’s new ships and terminals also give us a chance to introduce a range of new and improved services over the coming years. We’re looking forward to sharing more information with everyone soon and we certainly hope the vessels increase interest in the future of our rail-integrated ferry service.”

In the meantime, Rushbrook is focused on ensuring the ferry service is prepared for the inevitable return of mass travel once restrictions are lifted. “Travel will continue to be limited over the coming months, and many predict it may take several years to return to passengers flowing freely across borders,” he says. “However, the entire Interislander team is optimistic about the future, especially when you consider the special role we play in connecting Aotearoa New Zealand’s people and communities.”

This article was first published in the Autumn/Winter 2021 issue of Cruise & Ferry Review. All information was correct at the time of printing, but may since have changed. 

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By Simon Johnson
16 December 2021

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