Pier pressure: the proposal that could take away the waterfront

By Nicola Young

Featured in Capital #73
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It took decades for Wellington’s waterfront to be transformed from the fenced-off industrial area Wellington City Council Member Nicola Young remembers from her childhood to the promenade now so loved.

The sheltered inner harbour has become a nautical playground, plied by kayakers, dragon boaters, rowers, yachties – and the cross-harbour ferries.

Now this is all at risk she says.

The proposal to berth KiwiRail’s new mega-sized rail ferries in downtown Wellington has been greeted with dismay by local authorities, and residents are appalled.

Cook Strait’s ferry services are a critical part of New Zealand’s transport network, connecting the North and South islands; they’re effectively part of State Highway 1. The roll-on/roll-off ferry service commenced in 1962 when the Aramoana, operated by the Railways Department, made its maiden voyage. Its successor KiwiRail now runs the Kaitaki (its largest ferry), Kaiarahi, and Aratere, shifting 820,000 passengers and 250,000 cars a year. A smaller competing company, the privately-owned Strait Shipping, runs the Bluebridge ferries Straitsman and Strait Feronia.

KiwiRail proposes replacing its three ferries with two mega-sized rail ferries, comparable in gross tonnage (weight and volume) to a medium-sized aircraft carrier – or the Titanic. The new rail ferries would be 40 metres longer and five metres wider than the Kaitaki and more than double its gross tonnage of 22,365. They would come into service in four to five years.

I don’t have any issues with KiwiRail upgrading its ferries, but I’m struggling to understand why KiwiRail is so determined to move its terminal and industrial operation into the heart of our city in the face of increasingly determined opposition. At present KiwiRail’s ferries operate from Kaiwharawhara, while the smaller Bluebridge ferries operate from King’s Wharf.

Two years ago, the Future Ports Forum was set up to find the best location for a new multi-user ferry terminal, with representatives from Centreport, the New Zealand Transport Agency, Greater Wellington Regional Council, Wellington City Council, KiwiRail, and Strait Shipping. Kaiwharawhara was selected as the preferred location for a multi-user terminal but KiwiRail disagreed, citing Kaiwharawhara’s high seismic risk as it lies directly on the Wellington-Hutt Fault. The reality though is that the whole of downtown Wellington is a seismic risk, just like Tokyo, and engineers can design accordingly.

We’re all familiar with Wellington’s seismic risk and Centreport has been working on its resilience issues. All of its Wellington land is particularly vulnerable to a major quake (as we saw from the 2016 Kaikōura quake), thanks to the two major fault lines: the Wellington-Hutt Valley fault and the Aotea fault under the harbour. Research predicts there’s a five percent chance of a major rupture of the Wellington-Hutt fault in the next 50 years.    

KiwiRail wants a standalone terminal in downtown Wellington at King’s Wharf (close to the existing Bluebridge terminal) because it’s just across the road from the railway, and has a lower seismic risk. KiwiRail wants Bluebridge to have its own terminal at Kaiwharawhara, where KiwiRail now operates. Two terminals? That’s like having two airports.

There would be three sailings per ferry every day; that’s six arrivals and six departures. Every arriving rail ferry would deliver 6–7km of traffic (170 cars and 62 trucks) closer to the city, requiring major road works and greatly increasing traffic. Yet most of the 250,000 cars and 820,000 passengers using the ferries would just be heading straight to State Highway 1, with no need to drive through the capital’s Central Business District.

Trains would also run across Waterloo Quay (42 wagons per sailing), so ‘grade separation’ would be required; in simple English that’s a flyover rising over the railway adjacent to the Sky Stadium. You will recall Wellingtonians have been more than vocal about their dislike of flyovers.

It’s not just about traffic.

We don’t want our central city waterfront turned into an industrial estate with a huge carpark, railyard, and 220m-long, eight-storey-high ferries that will be seen from afar. King’s Wharf would have to be extended with a 200m finger wharf together with a much larger terminal, five storey link-spans, ramps, and gangways. KiwiRail has already purchased longer wagons, which require the marshalling yards to have much larger turning circles in in Wellington (and throughout New Zealand).

Then there’s the manoeuvring on the water. The mega ferries’ turning circles would be like having aircraft carriers doing doughnuts in the inner harbour – right in front of Te Papa, Chaffers Marina, and waterfront apartments. Just think of the wash. Marine simulation shows that problems like engine failure could be catastrophic, threatening the safety of other boats, wharves, marinas, and adjacent buildings.

The Council is trying to make the city more people-friendly, and our waterfront is a defining feature of Wellington and the envy of other cities. It should continue to be developed and opened up, rather than being shut off and industrialised. Auckland, like many other cities, is integrating its waterfront into liveable community spaces, so why would we lock ours up for at least the next 50 years? Why go backwards?

It’s unacceptable KiwiRail is trying to foist these ships onto Wellington’s precious inner harbour, ignoring the united voice of Centreport, the regional and city councils, and the Transport Authority, and trying to dictate terms to its rival Bluebridge. It’s even threatening to use the Public Works Act to acquire the King’s Wharf site from Centreport; that’s thought to be unprecedented , one public authority using the Act to take land from another public authority. It’s not KiwiRail’s role to decide the location of such major infrastructure on our waterfront, with such long-lasting effects on our city’s urban design.

Let’s talk about the expense. The government allocated $382.5 million to towards the new Interisland ferries ‘to support a resilient and reliable rail freight system’ in its Budget 2020, but that won’t go far with approximately $.05–1Billion required to construct new terminal facilities in Wellington and Picton.

The entire cost of the project remains unknown but it’s likely that KiwiRail has underestimated its sums, especially as most of the work will have to be replicated in the Picton. KiwiRail’s plans for Picton include a new terminal, a 280-metre wharf, jetties, and seawalls, with a road bridge over the rail line.

Fortunately, KiwiRail is a state-owned enterprise. Its colossal spending proposals will need approval (and funding) from the Government, and it’s already been told to continue working with the Future Ports Forum to find an acceptable solution.

And it will need the support of its shareholding Minister, Grant Robertson, who just happens to be Wellington Central’s Member of Parliament. Let’s hope Grant is listening.

Please KiwiRail, leave our treasured waterfront and inner harbour alone. Once we lose them, we’ll never get them back.


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