On Monday 14th November 2016 the 7.8 magnitude Kaikoura earthquake devastated the region, tearing through SH1 and sweeping the Main North Line railway out to sea.
The moment the Kaikoura earthquake struck
Shortly after midnight on Monday 14th November 2016, the 7.8 magnitude Kaikoura earthquake rocked New Zealand. In scientific terms, the Kaikōura earthquake was a new phenomenon. Starting in Culverdon, 70km south of Kaikōura, the quake ripped across several fault lines, including one that was previously unknown. The tear ended in Seddon, 90km north of Kaikōura. GeoNet described the 160km long rupture as the earth "unzipping” itself.
For almost two minutes, the Kaikōura earthquake tore through fault lines, demolishing houses, ripping up roads and railways, and causing massive landslides as it travelled. As far away as Wellington, people were shaken from their beds and had to take shelter. Tsunami sirens wailed across the region and severe aftershocks rumbled throughout the night, creating an unnerving sense of powerlessness and vulnerability. It was a harrowing night that will remembered forever by those who witnessed it.
The Day the Earth Stood Still
Whilst the earth reverberated with aftershocks throughout the day following the Kaikōura earthquake, most of New Zealand stood still. State Highway 1, New Zealand’s main road on the South Island between Christchurch and Picton, was buckled, broken and buried in several places. The Main North Line, the South Island's mainline railway between Picton and Christchurch, had two large sections scooped into the sea by landslides. The Interislander Cook Strait ferry terminals in Picton and Wellington were closed due to damage – and with the roads in tatters on the South Island, there was little reason to travel south whilst those travelling north were struggling to reach Picton.
Matters were exacerbated by incredible storms which hit the region in the days following the Kaikōura earthquake. Land weakened by the quake and its continuing aftershocks was now dislodged by heavy rainfall. More roads and railways closed. Meanwhile, the futures of State Highway 1, the Main North Line and the famous Coastal Pacific train were all hanging in the balance. New Zealand was on tenterhooks as the Government waited to make their decision on whether the damage was too much to repair or whether alternative inland routes would be upgraded and created instead.
Kaikoura earthquake rebuilding announced
After long consultation with the NZTA and KiwiRail, the Government announced that rebuilding State Highway 1 and the Main North Line was preferred over building new inland routes. For the Great Journeys of New Zealand, this was excellent news. The closure of the Coastal Pacific train following the Kaikōura earthquake had left a third of KiwiRail’s scenic journeys out of action. Crucially, the Coastal Pacific links the scenic journey from Wellington to Christchurch. This route is phenomenally beautiful, with a magnificent cruise aboard the Interislander ferry through the Marlborough Sounds followed by the scenic Coastal Pacific train along the South Island’s Pacific Coast.
Luckily, the larger slips that buried State Highway 1 occurred where the Main North Line railway tunnels through the seaside cliffs. Clearing and stabilising the tunnels north of Kaikōura, rebuilding the track bed that had been swept into the sea and bridging fissures resulting from the Kaikōura earthquake was still a huge amount of work. To complete it, a project workforce was put in place that would work around the clock. The workforce included many of those whose livelihoods had been disrupted by the Kaikōura earthquake.
Main North Line Gets Reconnected
More than 12km of track needed rebuilding, and 5km of track was realigned following the Kaikōura earthquake. The task was immense, but on the 8th of August 2017 the rebuild team gathered to witness the last weld – the Main North Line railway was now reconnected.
On 15th September 2017, the first freight train rolled into Kaikoura station. This marked the official reopening of the Main North Line - ten months after the Kaikōura earthquake. A ceremony was organised to celebrate the occasion, and the train was driven by Paul Foskett, who was at the controls the night the Kaikoura earthquake struck.
A permanent memorial to the Kaikōura earthquake was unveiled outside the station during the Main North Line reopening ceremony. Created by local artist Ben Foster, the sculpture of twisted rails represents the destruction caused by the Kaikoura earthquake and the resilience and dedication invested by those involved in the rebuild.
Getting the Main North Line Up to Speed
With the Main North Line reconnected, freight trains between Picton and Christchurch began operating overnight. During the day, the railway was used for carting away rubble and bringing in machinery and materials to assist with rebuilding the road. Working together, the NZTA and KiwiRail managed to have State Highway 1 reopen in time for Christmas in 2017. It was a phenomenal effort and a historical moment.
Although both State Highway 1 and the Main North Line railway were now reopened, they were running heavily restricted services. Work continued around the clock to get both road and railway back up to their pre-Kaikōura earthquake standard. Meanwhile, the future of the Coastal Pacific train between Christchurch and Picton remained hanging in the balance. The railway would need to be stable, smooth and speedy before passenger services could return.
Coastal Pacific Reopening
With the Main North Line railway from Picton to Kaikoura successfully running freight, attention finally moved to getting the Coastal Pacific long-distance passenger train back on track. For this to happen, the primary concerns of service and safety needed to be allayed. Not many passengers would be happy to sit on a train that has to frequently stop and crawl along the track - although this is increasingly common in all forms of transport!
Having a consistent freight service running through challenging weather conditions in winter 2018 provided renewed confidence that the Coastal Pacific could finally return. On the 1st of August 2018, KiwiRail announced that the Main North Line railway was ready for passenger services to return and that the Coastal Pacific reopening was scheduled for 1st December 2018.
The return of the Coastal Pacific train is a huge achievement by KiwiRail, the North Canterbury Transport Infrastructure Recovery Alliance (NCTIR), and the thousands of workers who have toiled away night and day for almost two years.