Manawatu Gorge road needs re-evaluating


Once again, the Manawatu Gorge road is closed by a slip. The latest slip is expected to take until mid-May to be cleared. As people who use the gorge road regularly resign themselves to another bout of waiting for it to open again or take alternative routes, it is time to consider the long term future of this slip prone road.

There is an underlying problem that people need to recognize. The problem is not in the road itself, but in the underlying geological strata, which is soft and easily erodible sedimentary material. Because of that, this is a recurring problem that engineers, road users and planners are simply going to have to learn to work around.

State Highway 3 is a major highway that runs between Woodville in the Wairarapa and Hamilton in Waikato. Probably the largest contributor to State Highway 3 traffic and benefactor of it is Palmerston North, on the Manawatu plain west of the Tararua Range.

But the slips are frequent, often substantial in size and clearing them can take weeks at a time. During this period there is significant financial penalty for the communities at either end of the gorge, and significant costs incurred by transport firms such as trucking companies which have to either delay or divert or even put their cargo on rail. Because of these and other problems, it is necessary to evaluate the options for transport and long term remedial work in the gorge.

Manawatu Gorge also has a railway line running through it, though this has numerous tunnels which protect from the slippage problems associated with the road route. One option would be to significantly increase the railway capacity for freight through the gorge. However this would be a long term solution rather than a short term one and would need input from Kiwi Rail.

Although it does not really suit road freight, a second possibility would be to upgrade the Saddle Road route. However this highlights a second problem as farmers need to stand their stock from feeding four hours before travelling so as to keep the resulting effluent to within the capacity of their rigs. It also raises the question of whether this road is really suitable for carrying large vehicles, given its windy nature and grades.

Slips are going to continue to happen in the gorge. This means that long term consideration needs to be also given to whether or not such measures as roofs need to be considered that enable the smaller landslides to pass over the road and go straight into the Manawatu River. One issue here is that slips are the cause of their toe support failing, which means the slip is likely to happen at or below road level. Terracing the potential slip prone slips is expensive and would involve significant alteration of slopes and not necessarily be guaranteed to work.

It would seem that rail is potentially the best option for freight. However there is no passenger service, due to insufficient demand, which means people needing to use the route either take the Saddle Road alternative or they drive to Porirua, over 100km to the south and back up via Featherston – a trip of nearly 250 kilometres.

But as the problem is in the geology and not necessarily the road, this is going to be a continuing issue.

Overhauling New Zealand public transport


We often moan about the state of transport in New Zealand. Columnists, politicians and drivers alike bemoan the time spent stuck in traffic, particularly in Auckland, Wellington and to a lesser extent Christchurch. But how much thought have they given to overhauling the entire New Zealand approach to transport?

When the Roads of National Significance programme was introduced, it was controversial as much for the huge budget it had, but also perceptions that every other transport mode had been short changed. A precursory look at the plans suggested that N.Z.$12 billion had been set aside. That was in 2011. The Government denied this, saying that Labour and the Green Party had crimped private transport.

Whilst it is possible to say National definitely has a bias in favour of the private vehicle, they cannot be entirely blamed for the state of N.Z.T.A. thinking. This is a government agency whose strategic thinking may be as much as 25 years out of date. It focus on roads at the expense of railways has been well documented. Since market deregulation started Kiwi Rail has declined steadily in terms of national coverage. The Southerner disappeared under Labour, and in 2005 they were forced to buy back Kiwi Rail, which Labour did. However no additional investment followed. And no one successfully stopped National a few years ago from buying Chinese locomotives that did not work properly on New Zealand’s narrow gauge railway.

Unfortunately in that same time, there has become a serious danger that the railways in Hawkes Bay, Gisborne and up in Northland may be closed in a further attempt by Kiwi Rail to cut costs. The West Coast line has question marks hanging over it despite Fonterra using it to pick up raw milk product and transport it through to processing plants in Canterbury. With the loss of coal as a major energy source – a fall in demand from China, the growing expense of operating coal mines in New Zealand being the causes – the year round Tranz Alpine express may not be enough to keep Otira tunnel open on its own. The New Zealand First initiative called Railways of National Importance (R.O.N.I) was a welcome, albeit still rather modest┬áchallenge to the “Car is King” philosophy of the Government.

But event within planning for roading, there seems to be little cohesion between individual projects and the overarching goals. There also seems to be little effort to integrate with other transport modes.

In Christchurch for example there was until 2009 a very good bus network which made getting to just about anywhere in the city a breeze. It was affordable, reliable, safe and fairly comfortable too. Whilst the geographic relocation of a large part of the city because of earthquakes has not helped, nor has the change in focus from buses to the private car. In early 2015, a mate who is interested in the use of buses and trains for public transport showed me an online mapping programme where I could map out my own bus route network. The plan was to submit it to Environment Canterbury when completed*. Since 2010 bus patronage has fallen substantially from the 10 million individual rides taken pre-2009.

To the best of my knowledge, no funding or planning has been done to provide for marine transport. As a result the merchant marine as a form of transport for freight has long suffered as well, despite New Zealand being a maritime nation. It was not helped by a significant funding cut when National took office in 2008, or the failure to get another rail based ferry after the Arahura was retired, which was short sighted in the extreme.

The Port of Lyttelton used to have roll on/roll off facilities to enable a ferry service that ran between Lyttelton and Wellington, but this service was wound up over 40 years ago. Following the 14 November 2016 Kaikoura earthquake, consideration has been given to reviving the service.

All in all, there is a clear need for a more even spread of funding and investment for transport modes. The updating of the strategic thinking in the N.Z.T.A. would be of use as well. Until then the congestion will worsen and issues with an already quite large private vehicle fleet will become more complex.

*(The bus map is read only now, and not complete. I had in mind a bike wheel layout with radial route and two ring routes (one can be seen, and the other would have been a larger ring loosely based on the current Orbiter route). The costings had not been worked out, but depended on the number of buses x the length of the route).

Milford Sound: Getting there is half the experience


This article is inspired by a sad story a few days ago of a crash that claimed two lives on the Milford road to perhaps the most stunning part of New Zealand’s conservation estate. It is inspired by the fact that

Thousands of people do it every year. My family have done it twice in 1991 and 1999. Both times we made it a two day exercise, driving from my Uncle’s farm in Waikaka to Te Anau Downs on the first day and then to Milford and back to the farm on the second day. Without doubt when it comes to scenery, the Milford road is the most fantastic drive in New Zealand.

But it is long. From Te Anau to Milford Sound is 204 kilometres one way. From Queenstown to Milford Sound, it is nearly 420 kilometres. The road is windy, has steep drop offs and is treacherous in rain or. In winter it can be closed for days by the avalanche risk and black ice on shaded corners have sent many a car into a spin.

Any one who has taken the time to enjoy the scenery along the way – to look at the fantastic waterfalls, the stunning alpine landscape, and verdant rainforest – will agree that the scenery along the way is breath taking.

Oh sure you might be trying to cram as much into your compressed holiday itinerary as you can. Sure you might not be coming back for awhile, but why the inane rush to drive Queenstown to Milford Sound AND back in a single day? Aside from being an exceptionally long drive totalling nearly 840 kilometres (525 miles), you completely miss the said stunning scenery. And you probably give stuff all time in Milford Sound, the place you spent so much effort getting to in the first place.

But, I have a solution and it is not a daft one by any means. Build a motel or other accommodation place just outside the National Park boundary. It is still about 100 kilometres from there to Milford Sound, but it does two things

  • Enable more time in Milford Sound, which was the whole reason for making the trip in the first place
  • give the visitor more time to enjoy said stunning scenery and marvel at what a fantastic place Fiordland National Park is

An assorted mix of accommodation would be necessary to cater for the various groups. Tour buses could use it as a pick up/drop off point and it might be possible to run smaller groups from the lodgings up to Milford Sound on minibuses. Giving tourists a place that they can be picked up from nearer to Milford Sound means they could leave their cars at the accommodation and not have to risk a road whose conditions they might not comprehend.

And if saves any lives by giving fatigued drivers somewhere to park up, all the better.

 

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.

The case for foreign drivers being tested


New Zealand First Members of Parliament accepted a petition today from the father of a person who died when they were hit by a foreign driver. As we pass through the busy tourist season where most of New Zealand’s foreign visitors come to our shores, it is a timely reminder of the need to address the safety of non-New Zealanders driving on our roads.

It needs to be said however that New Zealanders are not good drivers on the whole. Statistics show that a crash is as likely to be caused by a local failing to obey the road code as it is by a foreign driver. Simple problems such as lack of patience with slow drivers, failing to give way and running traffic lights are all common causes of crashes.

However, I have a potential solution to the problem:

With buy in from individual rental car companies, it should be possible to set up a common test web page where a person wanting to hire a car can go to complete the test. It would be administered by the Automobile Association of New Zealand. When a person at a rental car website goes to book the car it tells them that they need to take a short driving test, and divert to the page. At the test page, they select their language, nationality and enter their driver license number or equivalent identifier and do the test in that language. If they pass, it gives them a unique code that they enter on the rental car website. At this point they can complete the booking, and the rental car company knows from the outset that they are fit to drive.

I can see the case from both sides. As a vehicle service agent I see a lot of rental cars exiting the service yard of the company I work for, and I or one of my colleagues up at the airport might for all we know be one of the last staff to see a rental car intact – we can only hope once it leaves the airport drop off/pick up area that the car will make it back to the same location intact, but that obviously is not always the case.

On one hand when a customer arrives at a rental car pick up/drop off point, no matter which way they are going, they do not want to be delayed any longer than they absolutely have to be. Thus quite simply, a customer is not going to want to be delayed 20-30 minutes by a driving test. Running the tests, collecting them and marking them are all diverting time from attending to other duties.

It is also true that nor are they going to want to stick around longer than they have to when they drop rental car off. The driver will want to get their luggage out of the car, surrender the key and be gone fast, which means if they were in a prang and it caused damage to the car it could be difficult for staff to get their side of the story before they disappear. No staff member at a rental car company wants to hear about a rental car crash involving one of their company’s fleet vehicles any more than the police, the fire or the ambulance staff who have to attend it and pick up the pieces.

No one is ever going to stop all crashes from happening. But by working with the authorities, it is possible to reduce the number and severity of the crashes.