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Status Quo For Ferries Must Be Retained

The Interisland Line, operators of Cook Strait Ferries, has warned of significant reductions to ferry services unless the status quo is retained for speed restrictions in the Marlborough Sounds.

The warning is contained in The Interisland Line's submission to the Marlborough District Council on a proposed variation to the Marlborough Sounds Resource Management Plan that could effectively impose a 15-knot speed limit on conventional Interisland Line vessels in the Sounds.

The Interisland Line Group General Manager Thomas Davis says the proposal has no scientific basis and would mean that both the conventional ferries Arahura and Aratere would face reductions in service if the lower speed restriction was introduced.

"The Cook Strait ferry crossing is an extension of State Highway One, the transport infrastructure backbone of New Zealand, and any proposal to restrict its use is a national issue, not one to be decided by a local council. We must think very seriously of the consequences before we allow meddling in its current operation.

"Currently we operate six conventional ferry sailings per day, based on a one hour turnaround at our Picton and Wellington Terminals. Slowing the ferries down by the proposed margin will increase the crossing time by 15 minutes. That equates to 1.5 hours per day out of our current 24-hour operation leaving less time to turn around, and no margin for delay.

'Under that scenario it is likely we will have to consider reducing crossings of the conventional ferries from six to four daily with subsequent impacts for tourism, trucking operators, freight, manufacturers, exporters and retailers who rely on our ferries crossing the Strait.

"This would reduce our passenger and freight capacity by one-third. Reduced capacity and less traffic to cover fixed costs would in turn put pressure on our charges.

"A 15 minute increase in sailing times may not sound like much but it is the difference between running a ferry reliably with full loads, or having to take reduced loads, and cancel the service if there is a delay. Short turnarounds and cancelling services means our timetable would become much less reliable, to the detriment of our customers. Rather than run that risk we would be more likely to reduce sailings to maintain a consistent timetable."

Mr Davis said the Marlborough District Council move appeared to be based on the false assumption that evidence provided in the 1995 Environmental Court hearings into fast ferry speeds had proved the ferries caused environmental harm in the Sounds.

The Court, in its ruling, did not find any adverse effects.

He said he was concerned much of the current proposal to reduce speeds, if conventional ferries did not meet a specified wave-height formula, was based on the past history of fast ferries travelling fast through the Sounds.

"The Council saw that as a safety issue and addressed it by the 18-knot speed limit in the Sounds that is maintained by The Lynx. Now the Council appears to be confusing that safety measure with an environmental one and wants to impose restrictions on conventional ferries.

"In fact the 1995 hearings found no evidence to support those environmental claims against the fast ferries, let alone conventional ones, and suggested that changes to the status quo may be detrimental to the current environmental equilibrium established over the past 40 years of operations in the Sounds.

"There is no scientific evidence to suggest an arbitrary 15-knot limit will have any positive effect on the environment and as a result we believe that no further regulation of shipping activity is required as shipping is a sustainable activity in the Sounds. Any effects are not of sufficient magnitude to require regulation.

"We would much prefer to continue to work with the District Council and interest groups in the Sounds to ensure an ongoing balance between shipping activity and the requirements of other users of this significant region."

Mr Davis said if lower speed limits were imposed, The Interisland Line would have to seriously consider moving its ferry terminal from Picton, possibly to Clifford Bay. This would obviously have a detrimental effect on the Picton and wider Marlborough economies.

Compliance costs are also at issue in the related proposal to charge a levy of up 0.5 cents per tonne for each crossing.

"This is simply an arbitrary tax that will add $200,000 to $300,000 per annum to ferry operations, costs that will have to be passed on to customers. The Council has no idea how this money will be spent and no evidence of adverse environmental effects on which to base this proposal.

"We would much prefer to explore alternative ways of managing the concerns of Council and those groups interested in the well-being of the Sounds. We are keen to ensure a balance is maintained between having an efficient transport network on a route that is the spine of New Zealand's road and rail infrastructure and the maintenance of the environment of the Sounds."

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