By Pam Graham
Nov. 22 (BusinessDesk) – The fight to save rail is being set back by threatened industrial action on KiwiRail's Cook Strait ferries in the biggest freight week of the year, according to Mainfreight managing director Don Braid.
KiwiRail’s Interislander ferry business will enter mediation with unions on Friday to try to avert a strike that will halt Interislander ferry sailings from Dec. 1 to Dec. 8.
Braid said the selfish and "bloody disruptive" act by unions took the country back to the bad old days on the ferries.
"What disappoints us the most is there has been so much effort gone into getting rail back up and running in the last few years under this new ownership that the government has,” he said. "Not only KiwiRail, ourselves and a lot of other customers have put a lot of effort into working on rail.
"We are moving more freight than we have ever before on rail and we have the support of our customers,” he said. "And, here we have the unions taking us back to the 80s, which is just bloody stupid."
Last year Mainfreight moved 10,000 tonnes of freight, or 14,000 consignments, across Cook Strait in its busiest freight week of the year - the first week of December - and there would be more this year, Braid said.
Freight moved "just-in-time" these days and the disruption would not help the people of Christchurch where warehousing was reduced after the earthquakes.
"Freight is moving in and out as quickly as possible,” he said. “This is just more pressure that Christchurch does not need."
As occurred with Auckland bus drivers, members of the Aviation and Marine Engineers Association (AMEA) and Merchant Services Guild (MSG) did not ratify a settlement recommended by the unions, according to KiwiRail.
KiwiRail has said all Interislander ferry sailings will be suspended in the first week of December due to the strike.
KiwiRail chief executive Jim Quinn said on Thursday that the strike would have a severe impact on New Zealand's supply chain at a vital time of the year.
Interislander general manager Thomas Davis earlier said that it was disappointing to receive a strike notice on November 16, rather than a request to return to mediation.
AMEA represents 70 engineering officers and MSG represents 54 deck officers.
"If the strike proceeds it will affect about 14,000 passengers and 4,000 cars. About 1,200 rail wagons and a similar number of trucks will also be disrupted,” Quinn said.
“Our major freight customers have advised that they are already making alternative plans for their cargo.”
He said the Interislander immediately sought to arrange timely mediation between all parties, and was disappointed to learn that the unions would not be available to engage in mediation until Nov. 23.
Bluebridge ferries are still operating and freight companies are trying to get customers to move freight earlier.
KiwiRail’s ferries make 4,600 sailings a year, carrying 755,000 passengers, 53,000 rail wagons, 73,000 trucks and 212,000 cars. Two years earlier the ferries carried 845,411 passengers, according to annual reports.
Two of its three ferries have rail decks, which effectively make them part of the national rail network.
The Interislander business contributed 17 per cent of KiwiRail’s revenue in 2012 when there was a drop in passenger numbers, a sluggish economy and the Aratere ferry was out of action for stretching.
Cheap airfares and declining freight rates over a 10 to 20 year period have been cited by the company as challenges for the Interislander business.
Union officials were not immediately available to comment.