The rundown of New Zealand coastal shipping is threatening New Zealand’s capability to deal with the social and economic fallout from natural disasters.
A massive slip near Kaikoura has blocked the main road and rail link from north to south for the last couple of days and it is not known for certain how long it will take to clear and repair.
The cause of the slip is possibly related to the recent Christchurch earthquake, or heavy rain, but regardless of the cause, it is creating extra problems for transport and logistics in the badly disrupted South Island at a crucial time. Heavy trucks are diverted through the Lewis Pass, hundreds of kilometers off their normal route.
KiwiRail is now considering shipping freight to South Island ports other than Picton, to reach Christchurch faster.
Maritime Union General Secretary Joe Fleetwood says the neglect of coastal shipping has led to a “blind spot” in New Zealand’s transport mix.
“We’re an island nation dependent on shipping that has allowed its own shipping capability to vanish due to bad policies, and we are seeing now why this is a bad idea.”
He says the Maritime Union has argued for many years that over reliance on land transport and especially trucking was short-sighted.
“Unfortunately we have had little progress and the current Government is only interested in heavy trucking. We no longer have the coastal shipping capability to deal with the problem.”
Due to New Zealand’s geography, reliance on land based transport modes running down narrow and easily disrupted transport corridors was a dangerous weakness.
The Christchurch – Picton road and rail link was the only convenient land route from North Island to the majority of the South Island’s cities and economic hubs.
Mr Fleetwood says if there was a fleet of New Zealand vessels available, they would be able to quickly respond to such a situation if required, either for emergency relief or simply to ensure the supply chain was not broken. There are only a very small number of New Zealand freight vessels working on the coastal trade.
Most coastal cargo is now dominated by overseas vessels which work to tight fixed international schedules based on the interests of their owners, rather than any local concerns.
Mr Fleetwood says that the concerns about a Wellington earthquake were still extremely valid.
“If we look at New Zealand’s capital, it is totally dependent on a couple of access routes, and if these were blocked, shipping might provide the only lifeline.”
The Maritime Union was calling on the Government to remove policies which disadvantaged New Zealand shipping and included the “blue highway” as a key element of the transport mix.