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Moving mountains to reconnect communities

Canterbury, New Zealand




13 months




New Zealand
Project achievements

Solved the problem

Reconnected communities isolated by a 7.8 magnitude earthquake.

Area improved

Restored fractured freight networks.

Economy boosted

Businesses were able to welcome tourists back

Rebuild transportation links after a natural disaster

On 14 November 2016, a 7.8 magnitude earthquake hit in Kaikōura, New Zealand. The epic jolt resulted from the country’s strongest ground acceleration on record. Nearly 1 million cubic metres of rock and debris fell onto roads and the rail line, enough to fill 400 Olympic swimming pools.

There were 194 kilometres of road left damaged, with 85 landslides and 1,500 damaged sites across State Highway 1 (SH1) alone. On the Main North Line railway, 950 rail sites and 20 tunnels were damaged. Of the 150 kilometres of rail damaged, large sections of the line were pushed right into the sea.

The earthquake left Kaikōura and neighbouring communities completely cut off. New Zealand-wide, road and rail movements were heavily impacted.

The NZ Transport Agency and KiwiRail quickly formed a unique partnership to respond to this emergency. Given the importance of these rail and road links to many communities, reconnection had to be done quickly but safely.

After a herculean effort, the rail line was open to freight trains just ten months after tracks had been thrown into the sea, with the harbour back in operation exactly a year after the earthquake. SH1 was open to motorists again after just one year, one month, and one day.

By December 2017, 1,700 people had worked more than two million hours to move mountains and rebuild the road and railway. This work reconnected communities isolated by the earthquake and restored fractured freight networks.

Kaikōura Earthquake Recovery – our story

How we undertook the Kaikōura earthquake recovery

Did you know …

  1. >190km of railway and 194km of road affected

  2. Abseilers and helicopters secured 5,600m2 of mesh drape on slopes

  3. By December 2017, 1700 people had worked more than two million hours to move mountains and reconnect the communities isolated by the earthquake

Project achievements and benefits

This massive disaster reconstruction effort was more than just a rail and road opening. Families and friends were reconnected, businesses welcomed tourists back, freight could move easily to and across the South Island.

The region relies on tourism but after the earthquake, rail passengers stopped coming and initially there were no visitors by road. The economic and social recovery of the region depended on the transport networks reopening as soon as possible.

The community was delighted to have the road open in time for the busy holiday season. Tourism spending in Kaikōura in December 2017 was estimated to be NZ$9 million more than in December 2016. 

By 31 December 2017, the Main North Line had carried more than 89,000 tonnes of freight, meaning around 6,300 fewer truck journeys on fragile South Island roads, never built for the volumes they carried when SH1 was closed.

Project elements

During the Kaikōura earthquake, New Zealand’s South Island itself moved. Where the faults met the ground surface it was displaced, horizontally and vertically, by up to 12 metres.

Across the network of the Inland Road, Alternate Route, Main North Line railway and SH1 – 194km of damaged road, 220 work sites and 190km of rail line needed to be repaired. The situation was exceptionally complex with multiple routes, numerous sites and many types of damage.

It was a balancing act. Access versus getting work done, design alongside construction, and innovation versus speed – with the environment, safety and construction going hand in hand. Alongside 5,000 locals living in the coastal corridor, we built a team of 1,700 workers including teams from the Transport Agency, KiwiRail and over a hundred other organisations.

The destruction occurred on a coast renowned for its natural scenery, ecosystems and tourism experiences. The recovery team had to preserve what was precious while rebuilding quickly and with care.

People who made it happen

  • NZ Transport Agency
  • KiwiRail
  • North Canterbury Transport Infrastructure Recovery (NCTIR) alliance

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