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This website is developed from the site originally conceived developed & maintained by Marcus Castell and associates. Opinions are those of the various authors of the articles, and are not those of the NZ National Maritime Museum unless specifically noted. Information in this site has been updated to 2002 and will be progressively updated as resources allow. More information on historic ships (etc) is contained in the MARITIME INDEX website
New Zealand's Cook Strait Rail Ferries

The passenger service connecting Wellington and Picton dates back to 1875 and was for many years operated by the famous Union Steamship Company of New Zealand Limited.  The weekly service was initially operated by the identical 462 ton Hawea and Taupo (below).

The company's last ship on the run was the 400 passenger Tamahine (below) which ran on the route from 1925 until her withdrawal in 1962.  A 350 kilometre (219 miles) passenger rail service between the port at Picton and the island's principal city of Christchurch was inaugurated in 1945 and revamped as the Coastal Pacific in the mid 1990s.  When the Union Company announced in 1956 that the Tamahine was to be withdrawn in 1962 and not likely to be replaced (in spite of an offer from the government of a $3 million loan) the New Zealand Government decided that the service would be taken over by the Railways Department and an order was placed for a new ship for the service.

For the first century, the treacherous Cook Strait divided the country's railway system into virtually two independent and unconnected services.  As early as 1862 there was a proposal to link Bluff in the far South of the South Island to the Bay of Islands at the top of the North Island, with steamers spanning Cook's volatile strait.  However things have a tendency to move at a slower pace down-under and it was not until a century later, in August 1962, that the first roll-on roll-off rail and vehicle ferry Aramoana (below) was put into service.  In her first year of service the new vessel carried 207,000 passengers, 46,000 cars and 181,000 tons of freight.  The trade grew and soon a second ship was delivered for the service. This time the builders were Vickers and from their Newcastle yard came the similar, but slightly larger, Aranui.

By the end of the 1960s the conventional cargo services on the New Zealand coast were disappearing and the trade was increasingly being handled by ro-ro ships.  New Zealand Railways were also actively promoting the carriage of freight by rail wagon and utilising one wagon for the entire journey across Cook Strait by the rail ferries.  The freight side of the business grew and in 1972 the first freight ferry, Arahanga, was delivered by Upper Clyde Shipbuilders.  Two years later the French yard Dubigeon-Normandie delivered a second freight ferry, named Aratika.

When the Union Company announced that the other major passenger service between the two islands was to be terminated in 1976, the Railways board decided that the most expedient method of meeting this development was to convert one of the freight ferries into a full passenger configuration and upgrade the two older passenger ships.  The ship chosen for rebuilding was the newer of the two freight ferries, Aratika, and in early 1976 she sailed for Hong Kong where she was rebuilt as a passenger ferry by the Hong Kong United Dockyard.  The older Aramoana was upgraded at Sembawang Shipyard in Singapore, while Aranui was modified locally.

The service continued to operate successfully until it became obvious that the older ferries were approaching the end of their economic lives on the service and that a new vessel would be required to replace them.  The Aalborg Shipyard in Denmark delivered the new Arahura in 1983.  Following the new vessel's successful entry into service, the older Aramoana and Aranui were laid up and disposed of by 1985.

As a part of a total upgrading of all divisions of the New Zealand Railways in 1989, the ferries were given major overhauls which included upgrading of passenger facilities and the re-designation of the service as a 'ferry cruise'.  The catering facilities were extensively improved, as were the general passenger amenities.  To go with the new image, a striking new colour scheme was introduced replacing the former green hulls and yellow, red and black colours on the funnels.  In their place was an all White scheme with Blue and Green stripes at the top of the hull and a green, Blue and White funnel design incorporating the Dolphin 'Pelorus Jack' (this Dolphin was a famous sight for many years in the Marlborough Sounds).

Today the 51 mile service between Wellington and Picton is provided by two rail ferries operated by the state railway's Inter-island Line.  The Arahura and Aratere carry passengers, vehicles and rolling stock.  The service takes about 3 hours and 20 minutes to cross the strait, leaving Picton and Queen Charlotte Sound by way of Tory Channel and making an essentially east-west passage.  Only half of this time is spent in open sea, one hour being spent in the Sounds and some 40 minutes in Wellington Harbour.  On the voyage, passengers can admire the magnificent views of the Marlborough Sounds, watching out for dolphins or taking in a movie in the cinema.  There is also an information centre, bar for adult travellers, restaurant or café, work stations for the busy, a children's play area and quiet areas for those who want to relax.

Aramoana     1962 - 1983

Arahanga     1972 - 2001

Aratika        1974 - 1999

Arahura        in service since 1983

Aratere        in service since 1999


Thanks to Marcus Castell

This page is part of the Inter-Island Ferries section of the
New Zealand Maritime Record
web site.



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