Fatal crash near Springs Junction raises concerns about quake route
The fragility of the South Island's new main highway was highlighted when it was closed for at least 12 hours following a fatal truck crash.
One person died and a man in his 20s was flown to hospital with moderate injuries after the crash on State Highway 65 on Wednesday morning.
Two trucks were involved in the collision 9.5 kilometres north of Springs Junction, just before 10am.
The road remained closed until at least 10pm, adding an extra 47kms to the detour between Christchurch and Picton that had been used since the November 14 earthquake closed SH1 .
The road where the crash happened was part of the bypass route – comprising state highways 63, 65, 6 and 7, through the Lewis Pass – since the 7.8 magnitude earthquake caused multiple slips and damage to coastal SH1.
SH1 is not expected to reopen for several months, while ongoing roadworks are expected for its alternative.
Marlborough roading authority, Marlborough Roads, has been told to prepare for three years of maintenance on State Highway 63.
Transport Minister Simon Bridges shot down any suggestion that meant SH1 would be out of action for three years, but declined to provide a precise estimate.
The NZ Transport Agency (NZTA) listed 11 moderate and six major slips between Kaikoura and Ward, creating a complex repair job.
"It's a . . . major job given the size of the slips and the complexity of what we're dealing with geographically," Bridges said.
"That being said, I don't think it's anywhere like three years. I think it's a period of many months but I'm loathe to put a more precise timeframe on it because I want to be realistic."
The Government has already committed between $50 million and $100m to maintain and upgrade the inland route from Christchurch to Picton.
Residents on the affected highways have raised concerns about the effect the unprecedented level of traffic will have on road surfaces, and whether it could lead to more crashes and safety issues.
Isolated sections of the route, parts of which were located a considerable distance from the nearest emergency service stations, have also been cause for concern.
NZTA regional performance manager Pete Connors said all drivers using the alternative state highway route must use extra caution, with the journey taking a minimum of seven-and-a-half hours to complete.
"This [is a] longer and more challenging route which is now carrying significantly higher amounts of traffic."
Traffic numbers through St Arnaud on SH63 have more than tripled, with an average of 1230 vehicles – including 400 trucks – using the road each day. Traffic volumes along SH7 have increased by about 40 per cent.
Connors said police had increased patrols and enforcement activity along the route, and NZTA was working to make the roads safer.
Efforts included improving road surfaces, widening roads in some places, installing extra safety and directional signs, and providing more opportunities for rest stops.
Murchison police Constable Matt Elliott said the alternative highway route was not designed for high traffic flows like State Highway 1 was.
Police expected even higher traffic volumes on the routes over summer. There were infrequent passing bays and drivers should allow extra travel time and take frequent rest breaks, Elliott said.
"It no longer takes four hours to get from Murchison to Christchurch. It's a much longer trip. You might not be able to do 100kmh for the entire stretch."
Since the earthquakes, four extra highway patrol units were covering the area from the Lewis Pass to Murchison, and staff in Marlborough had refocused their police patrols to reflect the extra traffic, he said.
A Springs Junction petrol station manager said the volume of traffic coming through the route was already at levels usually seen only at the peak of the summer holidays.
Steve Templeton, workshop manager at GAS Lewis Pass, said since the earthquake there had been fewer crashes on the surrounding highway because the extra traffic meant cars were going slower.
There was potential for motorists' frustration to build during the upcoming holiday season when they were stuck behind trucks though.
"It is what it is, you have just got to drive to the conditions."