Turbulent Waters: Legal Charges Filed Against KiwiRail Over Ferry Power Failure

New Zealand Authorities Take Unprecedented Action Following Critical Safety Lapses


New Zealand regulatory authorities have taken unprecedented action by initiating legal proceedings against the operator of a major inter-island ferry, following a power failure incident that occurred one year ago. The charges, currently under review in a New Zealand court, stem from an exhaustive investigation conducted by Maritime New Zealand and a damning report issued by the country’s Transport Accident Investigation Commission (TAIC), which emphatically called upon Maritime New Zealand to rectify critical safety deficiencies.

In a preliminary report addressing the incident involving the RoRo ferry Kaitaki, TAIC determined that the operator, KiwiRail, had neglected to adhere to the manufacturer’s guidelines and its own maintenance protocols. According to the report, a 13-year-old rubber expansion joint, installed on the ferry in 2018, failed in 2023, exceeding the manufacturer’s recommended lifespan and overdue for replacement based on the operator’s procedures.

“The investigation spanned 12 months, involving a thorough examination of the operator’s organizational information related to safety and maintenance management processes, interviews, and post-incident inspections of the Kaitaki,” stated Kirstie Hewlett, Director of Maritime NZ. “Only after comprehensive review of the gathered material did we decide to pursue legal action.”

The incident unfolded on the late afternoon of January 28, 2023, with 800 passengers and 80 crew members on board as the ferry approached Wellington, New Zealand. KiwiRail, the operator, boasts itself as “the original Cook Strait ferry,” connecting the North Island and South Island (Wellington and Picton) through multiple daily sailings carrying passengers, cars, trucks, and rail cars. The voyage, typically taking 3.5 hours, exposes the vessel to challenging weather conditions, as witnessed during the 2023 trip with winds reaching 30 to 40 knots.

Built in the Netherlands in 1995, the ferry operated in Ireland until 2001 before being chartered to P&O Ferries. KiwiRail chartered the vessel in 2005 and acquired it in 2017. The 22,365 gross tonnage ship, capable of accommodating 1,650 passengers and 600 cars, experienced a blackout near Sinclair Head while approaching Wellington. Prompt action by the crew averted a potential disaster, with the vessel anchoring and power being restored after an hour. The ship, escorted by a tug, eventually docked in Wellington around 9:00 pm.

KiwiRail later confirmed a leak in the vessel’s engine cooling system as the cause of the incident. Repairs and inspections, including one by Lloyds Register, were conducted before the vessel resumed service.

TAIC’s preliminary report identified a ruptured rubber expansion joint as the root cause, highlighting the operator’s failure to track and replace aging components. The company now faces potential fines of up to approximately US$900,000 if found guilty. The charges have reignited discussions about the necessity of replacing aging ferries, with union leaders and politicians asserting that the vessel’s age renders it prone to operational issues akin to an aging automobile.


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