The alternative route – four months in and six to go! Summation

Friday, April 7, 2017

Time for an update on the Kaikoura earthquake disaster in logistics terms.

We’re four months into New Zealand’s worst logistical disaster, and the good folks south of the quake line have barely felt anything more than minor inconveniences through the ‘almost’ severing of their lifeline links.

Recap back to 11 November 2016 when SH 1 was destroyed between Christchurch and Picton, completely isolating Kaikoura. Not to mention closing all ferry links between the two islands.

At that point the South Island was not connected to the North by any of the reliable, expedient and durable means we had all relied on for years.

Quickly systems were repaired where possible. The Wellington to Picton ferry links were restored within days. The Northern Canterbury roads and bgridges were repaired and are under constant maintenance. Goods started to flow through the severely constrained and limited Blenheim-St Arnaud-Murchison- Lewis Pass-Springs Junction-Waipara route, made up of State Highways 1 (at Blenheim) to 63, 6, 65, and 7 before returning to SH 1. This is a much longer, slower and more difficult temporary alternative route.

As a general rule the higher the State Highway number the lower the traffic use. We went from 1 to 67 in three days.

Road transport reconnected New Zealand once the ferries were operating. Coastal shipping increased considerably, and the link was restored. Most people in the south probably do not know how close they came to isolation, and how fragile the current links are, and will remain.

What people do not realise is that, apart from the ferry links, nothing, repeat nothing, is fixed.

Wellington wharf is a disaster, and the downtown city area is still undergoing demolition. Buildings stand empty. The container port is closed, broken, with no repair completion date set. Trucks and rail links are serving the lower North Island port needs. Truck traffic between Wellington and Napier (the current de facto port) has increased considerably.

Rail links in the South Island are still cut, and it is possible that the first mainland link to be renewed will be the Main Trunk Line, in a very limited capacity. If work continues as positively as it has been, KiwiRail may be operational for one train per day before winter. This will be a success in itself, but only represents about 12% of KiwiRail’ s pre-earthquake capacity.

SH 1, our logistical lifeline, is not likely to be restored, in any capacity, before December, some 13 months after the earthquake.

Don’t read this as suggesting that nothing is being done, because that would fail to give credit to the teams of contractors working for NZTA and KiwiRail for long days and nights attempting to rejoin us as a country.

But the expectation now is that things are back to normal, when in reality this is as far from the truth as it was the day after the earthquake. Since then nothing changed in the transport delivery field, except it became harder. Roads unsuitable for high volumes of commercial traffic have been carrying these high volumes all summer long. We’ve had a good summer, and the roads have survived so far, but there has been an inevitable toll on the roads. These lower capacity State Highways have gone from about 50 trucks per day to just short of 600 per day.

More than 15,000 tonnes of freight per day is currently travelling on these roads, keeping our people and our economy alive. If this sounds dramatic, it damn well should. Road transport has saved the economy and fed and clothed all of those south of the quake, and sadly many have no appreciation of the immense effort that goes into maintaining the supply.

The link is plain dangerous. There have been many accidents, and people have died. We have had two vehicles taken out by others driving poorly, and we have decided to cease using the roads at night because of the risk to our driving team. We have introduced a company speed limit to reduce our risks, and to reduce potential for damage to roads. Parts of the road are too narrow for trucks to pass. The road surface is deteriorating and repairs are undertaken constantly. Our drivers are tired as the concentration needed on this road is much greater than it was for SH 1, and needed for longer periods. Our productivity is down by more than 50% on this link, and winter is around the corner. Winter normally sees the Lewis Pass closed for some days without the traffic flows that currently exist. The already dangerous road will become treacherous, with ice and snow creating a considerable ‘extra’ hazard.

Through all of this the essential delivery of goods has continued. There may have been some minor inconveniences. Some goods may have been a few days late.

We have done such a good job of delivering normality that many people are now forgetting what is happening around them. They simply don’t know how serious the situation is, and they haven’t even considered that there are at least eight months to go before any semblance of normality is returned.

In summary:

Fixed: Wellington-Picton ferry links (but not the wharf around them)

Not Fixed:
Wellington Port
Wellington downtown
Main Truck Line, between Picton and Christchurch
SH 1, vital link between North and South, relief highways used in interim
Kaikoura’s fragile economy

Estimated drop in efficiency: Between 50% and75%

Serious shortages as a result: Nil

Risk of route closure: High

What have we done:
Immediately we placed extra vehicles into the South Island to cover the extra time and distance requirements. We have since added more. To date we have more than doubled our South Island capacity with no increase in freight volume. We are waiting for additional trucks from Germany, and have ordered additional semi-trailers from Australia as our own trailer building industry was already at capacity before the earthquake. Our brought forward capital expense as a result of the earthquake will be greater than $2 million. We represent less than 1% of the freight movement on the alternative route, and others will have spent much more.

Coastal shipping:
We have seen a large increase in coastal shipping, and have used it wherever possible. It is slower and the frequency is variable, so use (where cargo permits) results in delays. It represents a useful backstop, but cannot and will not ever meet the needs of the freight demand.

Carrying the country: The bloody truckies