KiwiRail's planning for when quakes occur, not if
OPINION: It’s been 10 years since the first big earthquake shattered Christchurch, followed a few months later by the more devastating quake that claimed 185 lives, with thousands more people injured.
In 2016, the Kaikōura earthquake destroyed national infrastructure, including chunks of State Highway One and KiwiRail’s Main North Line between Picton and Christchurch. After that quake, a person standing on the southern side of the fault would see that the northern side was now two metres higher than before the quake. Fixing the infrastructure has taken about $1 billion of taxpayers’ money and created disruption for years.
KiwiRail’s current group chief executive Greg Miller was managing director at Toll Holdings, and in charge of the national supply chain following the 2011 Christchurch quake – an enormous logistical undertaking.
I am the company’s chief operating officer and was in Christchurch for both of the big quakes, and Walter Rushbrook, now general manager of Interislander, was project director of the railway rebuild after Kaikōura.
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Those experiences influence the way KiwiRail management thinks about infrastructure and resilience for the company and New Zealand. We plan for when earthquakes occur, not if.
It is the decisions taken when infrastructure was planned that will, to a large extent, determine the severity of the damage, and even the number of lives lost when an earthquake hits. New Zealand is a signatory to the United Nations Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction 2015-30, which says, “reducing disaster risk is a cost-effective investment in reducing future losses”.
We can never eliminate risk in Wellington, but we can and should do what is reasonably in our power to reduce it.
The opportunities to start afresh with large-scale infrastructure are rare.
However, there is one of those opportunities right now in Wellington with the need to build a terminal for the new Interislander ferries that the company anticipates beginning service on Cook Strait in 2024-25. They are nearly 40 metres longer and at least five metres wider than Interislander’s current three ageing ferries. New berths will be needed.
The Kaiwharawhara terminal is already inadequate and needs replacing. The question is whether the replacement should be in the same location.
The current terminal is on the Wellington Fault rupture zone yet in April this year, Horizons Regional Council and Greater Wellington Regional Council announced Kaiwharawhara, with further reclamation, as their preferred location for future terminal infrastructure development.
Have Christchurch and Kaikōura taught New Zealand nothing? Kaiwharawhara is not the site on which a city or nation should choose to build vital infrastructure when it could go somewhere safer.
GNS Science has advised KiwiRail that Kaiwharawhara is “one of the recognised riskiest corridors for critical infrastructure in New Zealand. The Thorndon-Kaiwharawhara area and Cook Strait and the ferry service are noted as two of 10 nationally-critical-risk corridors for New Zealand by the New Zealand Lifelines Council”.
None of the possible ferry terminal sites in Wellington is free of seismic risk, but Kaiwharawhara has the highest risk of a rupture. After a quake, the time to restore the crucial North Island-South Island sea link will be a key to recovery, and that is likely to be longer if the terminal is at Kaiwharawhara than if it is at another site.
Discussions on the terminal location have been under way for a long time but a resolution has so far been elusive.
The current suggested alternative is Kings Wharf, which would have Interislander on the empty container land to the seaward side of where Bluebridge currently berths. The site can be strengthened and, with a properly designed traffic management system, would offer better access to the port and ferries.
We know the passion of Wellingtonians for their waterfront. However, this location is already closed to the public and would in no way interfere with Wellingtonians’ enjoyment of the inner harbour.
KiwiRail is confident that with the right harbour management controls in place, navigational requirements can be safely managed in Wellington, just as they are in Picton, even with the presence of small recreational craft.
Although there is no perfect site, the Cook Strait ferries’ Wellington bases are an essential part of New Zealand’s transport infrastructure.
In the 2019 financial year – the last uninterrupted by Covid – Interislander carried more than 250,000 cars, and more than 820,000 people, in addition to thousands of tonnes of essential freight. This year it operated throughout the level 4 shutdown.
The service is critical to the nation and should remain no longer than necessary on some of the riskiest ground in New Zealand.