New Zealand state-owned enterprise KiwiRail has launched a Request for Proposal (RFP) to find a shipyard for the construction of two ships for Interislander.

Interislander is operated by KiwiRail and is a road and rail ferry service that operates between Wellington and Picton across the Cook Strait.

The two new ferries will boost the capacity and resilience of the transport link. The search for the shipyard marks the next phase of the procurement process.

KiwiRail Group CEO Greg Miller said: “The new ships will strengthen and enhance the vital transport link between the North and South Islands and represent a once-in-a-generation opportunity to transform the Cook Strait crossing.”

The ferries are extensions of the Main Trunk Line and State Highway 1 across Cook Strait and connect the road and rail networks between the islands.

Interislander currently operates three ferries that move approximately 800,000 passengers and road and rail freight worth approximately NZ$14bn between the North and South Islands annually.

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Earlier this month, the New Zealand Government allocated NZ$1.2bn ($717m) in the Budget 2020, which will be available to KiwiRail, including NZ$400m for replacing the old Interislander ferries.

The ferries are expected to start service in 2024 and 2025. The delivery of the new ferries will mark more than 25 years since new purpose-built ferries were introduced to the fleet.

The NZ$400m allocated for ferries adds onto the NZ$35m provided for ferry design and procurement work as part of Budget 2019.

The ferries will emit reduced emissions and offer higher carrying capacity, including rail wagons.

Miller added: “Only overseas shipyards have the ability to build ferries of the size and standard needed for the Cook Strait. However, the project also involves new infrastructure, including terminals, linkspans and marshalling yards, which will create numerous Kiwi jobs in Picton and Wellington. Community engagement has already begun in Picton for the proposed new terminal there.

“We are engaging our Interislander staff in the design of the ferries to ensure the ships are not only great for passengers but also for those who work on them.

“Our new ferries and the associated port infrastructure will provide greater resilience for this crucial link that unites our country and will serve New Zealand for the next generation and beyond.”