Contractor NZTA project Roading

The day the trains started running

The massive Kaikoura earthquake largely spared population centres, but destroyed road and rail services. HUGH DE LACY tells how they got the trains running again on a very important transport route.

THE FORCE OF the November 14 Kaikoura earthquake last year dwarfed that of the 2010-2011 quakes that destroyed Christchurch, raised the seabed along the coast and left the land adjacent to it looking as if it had been gouged by a giant plough.

Somewhere amid the furrows was a railway line, ripped to pieces in more than 900 places, many of them alongside the equally shattered main state highway, and Kaikoura was totally isolated.

The quake registered 7.8, compared to the 7.1 that struck east of Christchurch in September of 2010, and the 6.3 and 6.1 quakes that hit Christchurch an hour apart, killing 185 people, the following February.

Though mostly affecting areas of low population, November’s quake also hit Wellington high-rises, with a number having to be demolished, and it left two people dead.

Daniel Headifen, the professional head of civil engineering for state-owned KiwiRail, was at his Waikanae home when the quake struck in the early hours of November 14, and by daylight he and other NZTA staff were huddling in the NZTA control centre in Johnsonville.

Pictures of the damage to the line between Picton and Kaikoura  were coming through from the media and from their own staff, and it was apparent that this was a disaster on a different scale from the slips, floods and minor quakes to which they were used to reacting.

The line was virtually destroyed between Spotswood, a little north of Cheviot, and Kaikoura.

The first priority was to ensure that damage in Wellington hadn’t compromised KiwiRail’s response to the wider disaster along the northern east coast of the South Island, and then to contact the NZ Transport Agency to compare notes.

Even before the establishment of the North Canterbury Transport Infrastructure Recovery (NCTIR, or Nectar as it came to be called) to oversee reconstruction of both road and rail, it was apparent that priority had to be given to making such repairs to roads as were needed to break Kaikoura’s isolation.

In the interim, KiwiRail scrambled to assess the damage.

“With no trains running, we were able to focus our resources on estimating the damage,” Daniel Headifen told Contractor.

As many staff as possible were committed to this job, so difficult because much of the line couldn’t be reached by road, with even the loco drivers being co-opted because of their intimate knowledge of the line and their familiarity with radio communications.

Hundreds of bridges, culverts and embankments had been destroyed, and in places the line had disappeared completely under vast tonnages of rock and soil where the quake had heaved entire hillsides across the line.

One train was stranded near a damaged bridge which had to be strengthened to allow the train across and into a tunnel where the locomotives sat for weeks until they could be rescued.

About 30 two-person teams of assessors were assigned to working out of Kaikoura on damage assessment. Communicating with them was initially a major problem because KiwiRail’s own radio equipment, sited on hilltops and at tunnel entrances, had been destroyed, so a pool of satellite phones was required.

“We tracked where everyone was, and marked them on a 20 metre long map set up in the Christchurch office, by holding a conference call with them all each  morning to find out where they were going to be, and again in the evening to find out where they’d got to and what damage they’d recorded,” Daniel says.

Assessing some of the tunnels was challenging as significant safety measures had to be put in place prior to staff being able to enter.

Towards the end of the year KiwiRail and NZTA were working together to address their mutual challenge, and NCTIR was set up in January, initially headed by Duncan Gibb of Fulton Hogan who had been the first project director for the Stronger Christchurch Infrastructure Rebuild Team (SCIRT) alliance in the wake of the earlier quakes.

KiwiRail’s damage assessment had largely been completed by Christmas, and remedial work, which had till then been restricted to local contractors and KiwiRail staff working on access to road and rail damage spots, began in earnest.

With the establishment of NCTIR, the workforce for both road and rail was rapidly cranked up to around 1500, and the four main contractors – HEB Construction, Downers, Higgins/Fletcher and Fulton Hogan – began working jointly on both road and rail.

KiwiRail concentrated first on clearing the line from Blenheim to Lake Grassmere, then  began working on the heavily damaged section between Spotswood south of Kaikoura to Grassmere. The track to the south was cleared first, allowing work trains loaded with ballast aggregates to get through to work-sites.

Many bridges could be  temporarily repaired with steel parts from KiwiRail’s stores, but others, like the arch-bridge 131 north of Kaikoura and the Boundary Stream bridge 90 to the south, were completely destroyed.

Original estimates put the re-establishment of rail and road links out to Christmas of this year.

But as work progressed, helped by the establishment of a village at Kaikoura accommodating 300 workers, the projected recovery time for resuming rail  services  on a restricted basis, was shortened by four months. A milestone on the rail line’s repair was reached on August 8 when a welding ceremony at Half Moon Bay on the Kaikoura coast marked the joining of the north and south sections, with work trains able to get through from both ends to help the reconstruction.

Test trains started running back and forth, north and south, later that month, de-rusting the rails, ensuring that signalling equipment was working again, and refining timetables.

The big day came on September 15 when the first revenue train made the full trip from Blenheim to Christchurch, stopping briefly in Kaikoura for a re-opening ceremony attended by 300 workers and half the town.

It then went on to a second ceremony in Christchurch attended by  rail customers, staff and local dignatories, including local politician, Gerry Brownlee.

Trains are now running  on a restricted basis  – not during wet weather and only at night so as not to interfere with ongoing reconstruction work during the day.

The  unusually wet weather in late September and early October – rainfall  in Kaikoura in the first 10 days of October was  almost twice the long term average for the entire month –  has caused further slips affecting road and rail and impacted on the rail services.

Daniel says that the work to completely make good the quake’s damage is only about halfway complete.

“It’ll be around another year before everything’s done,” he says.

In the meantime, only freight is being moved, relieving some of the strain on KiwiRail’s road rail exchange north of Blenheim, and taking 2000 trucks a month off the alternative road route to Christchurch.

This article first appeared in Contractor November 2017.

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