EDITORIAL | Brilliant opportunity presented with Tasmanian ferry decision

Photo: TT Line

With the sad but inevitable and long-predicted demise of the Tasmanian TT Lines’ chosen builder, Germany’s storied, 150-year-old Flensburger Group, the line’s owner, the Tasmanian Government, still chose to go overseas for the coming replacement of its two Bass Strait ferries.

Its deep-seated “cultural cringe” against local shipbuilders is well known. Fortunately, its negotiations with Finnish company Rauma Marine have now been terminated and the long-suffering Finnish taxpayers will not now have to subsidise Tasmania’s ferries.

Even more fortunately, the Tasmanian Government seems to have, at least temporarily, overcome its prejudice and announced that it is looking locally for its Bass Strait ferry replacements. This is about time. It has only taken it nearly thirty years to awaken to what is available on its own doorstep.

We can only hope that this Covid-19 inspired Damascene conversion on the part of the Tassie government will not lead it off on a wild goose chase that would result in the establishment of a highly subsidised and completely unnecessary steel shipyard in the state. The CFMMEU and its crony capitalist fellow travellers will undoubtedly encourage the government to follow that course. That would, though, be the worst thing the state government could do. It would only create a long-term millstone for Tasmanian and mainland taxpayers to wear around their necks in perpetuity.

Incat’s Volcan de Tagoro for the Canary Islands

With the long-established and world-renowned shipbuilder Incat operating in the inner suburbs of the island state’s capital Hobart and its main competitor, the equally well-respected Austal, not far away in Western Australia, the Tasmanians are spoilt for local choice. All they need to achieve a brilliant result for all concerned is to overcome the baseless cultural cringe that seems so prevalent among Australia’s politicians and bureaucrats.

A large, 120-metre-plus Incat or Austal ship could easily handle the “rough” waters of Bass Strait, despite what the long out-of-date and dishonest “spewcat” naysayers keep telling us. They could cover it in nearly half the time of the existing ships and at significantly lower capital and operational costs. They could also carry just as many, or more, passengers, cars and trailers as the existing ships.

If the government wanted to run its ships at the same speeds as its existing vessels, costs would be dramatically lower still. Indeed, hybrid powered ships would be a real possibility. They would be capable of running half way across the strait on clean, green, hydro-generated electricity with the remainder of the voyage north and the return trip from Melbourne run on, still clean, LNG.

In its press release announcing its change of heart, the Tasmanian Government admits it was looking at an investment of, “more than $850 million” in the Finnish ships. I am advised that both Incat and Austal could provide the same passenger and vehicle carrying capacity on two locally built ships for well under half that, around $200 million per ship.

They would also be much safer, faster and more economical and would provide a wonderful showcase for a local product. Further, it is quite possible that one locally built catamaran or trimaran ferry could, because of its greater speed, do the same job as two traditional, European-built Ro-Pax ships.

Austal trimaran Ro-Pax

The existing TT Line ferries carry considerable amounts of cargo in addition to the passengers and vehicles for which they were intended. That cargo is carried in competition with two private shipping companies.

It would be inappropriate to try to carry that cargo on locally built aluminium Ro-Pax ferries. However, the existing competitors could easily and cheaply increase their capacity. They would, presumably, welcome such an opportunity.

If, however, the TT Line wished to maintain its cargo service, it could convert one or both of its existing Ro-Pax vessels to pure cargo or purchase, very cheaply, one or two pure cargo ships. Whichever solution is chosen, the total capital costs would fall dramatically.

The Bible tells us that, “a prophet has no honour in his own country”. That certainly applies to both Incat and Austal, who have built scores of large and very safe fast ferries for foreign owners. They have been successfully and very safely and comfortably operated in Asia, Europe, North Africa and North and South America for thirty years. Both companies have plenty of export orders currently for new ships.

For some strange reason which, I suspect, has a lot to do with the above-mentioned prejudice, they have not managed to sell any to local operators. The most obvious and prominent of those, of course, is the TT Line.

The Tasmanian Government has advised that it is establishing, “a taskforce to investigate options within Tasmania and Australia.” We can only hope that the taskforce is permitted to make rational economical decisions unencumbered by union bullying and ingrained prejudice against local builders.

The TT Line and its Bass Strait crossing customers deserve to have the best, safest, most comfortable and most economical ships available. Both of Australia’s world leading aluminium ship builders can offer that. Tasmania has a wonderful opportunity to introduce a world leading service on this very popular route and, at the same time, to show off a world-leading local product. The work of the “taskforce” should be easy.

Neil Baird

Co-founder and former Editor-in-Chief of Baird Maritime and Work Boat World magazine, Neil has travelled the length and breadth of this planet in over 40 years in the business. He knows the global work boat industry better than anyone.