Road and rail in northeast South Island needs revisiting

The land slides are many and big. The road and railway damage is widespread and diverse – slumping, displacement by fault scarps, erosion by land slides above and below. And 3 months later, with State Highway 1 and the Main Trunk Line still closed north of Hapuku, the urgency to address transport issues in the northeastern part of the South Island is growing.

Transport Minister Simon Bridges might be fixated with motorways, expressways and other types of road in the North Island, but 3 months after the Kaikoura earthquake, Mr Bridges needs to address the long term future of State Highway’s 1, 70 and 7, as well as the Main Trunk railway line between Picton and Christchurch. The closure of the State Highway 1 and the surge in traffic on State Highway 70 once it was usable have had a myriad of effects, some of which were predictable and some not so. The closures highlighted vulnerabilities of certain transport infrastructure that need to be addressed in the long term.

State Highway 70, for the most part has been viewed as a scenic alternative route between Kaikoura and Christchurch, connecting with State Highway 7 near Culverden. Now though it is more than that, having become a major route for trucks getting in and out of Kaikoura, for whom S.H. 1 is not a safe route, both in terms of navigating the road, and also in terms of being prone to landslips as demonstrated by the Kaikoura earthquake. This makes a strong case for upgrading both it and S.H. 70, with a potential truck stop perhaps being needed in the long term where drivers can pull up for rest and refreshments.

It also raises the question of whether more effort should have been put into getting freight onto railways. Trucks might be able to move faster than trains and not have the same loading requirements, but one train can move many truckloads in one go. It is also true that there is a rail ferry operating out of Picton where the locomotive drives a train onto the ship in Picton or Wellington, and another locomotive picks it up at the other end. With trucks having been involved in numerous crashes on S.H. 1 between Oaro and Kaikoura, the case for using trains to carry more freight gets stronger.

I believe rail freight is vastly under rated in New Zealand and that State Highway 1 between Oaro and Kaikoura is not suitable for large trucks. Either use the inland route, or – when it is up and running – put the freight on rail. As S.H. 1 north of Kaikoura is no less prone to slips, priority should be given to making Picton a sort of railway hub with a second rail ferry if necessary.

There will be further earthquakes in our life time near Kaikoura and some could be big. Four large faults go out to sea in the tectonic transfer zone, that – ironically – on a map of fault lines, looks just like the idling railway shunting yard in Picton would appear: a main strand splaying into several smaller lines. Just as nature is going to make use of her shunting yard in time, we should make better use of the shunting yard at Picton.

As soon as we can open the railway line.

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