South Island rail line could open for freight within the month
Trains could be back on the Main North Line to Kaikoura within a month, but the link will not be fully operational until the mid-2018, KiwiRail says.
Nine months after the 7.8-magnitude earthquake damaged the South Island rail line, freight is close to returning to the tracks.
Last November's earthquake caused major damage to about 60 sites along the rail line, including tunnels, bridges and embankments.
The re-opening is likely to take 2000 trucks off South Island roads being used as alternative transport routes.
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KiwiRail chief executive Peter Reidy said repair work had progressed quickly in recent weeks and the first freight trains could run within a month.
The tracks would be opened on a restricted basis five nights a week for two trains a night – about 50 per cent of capacity.
"We're looking to probably get up to the full capacity probably mid-next year.
"We can't run during the day because that's when the roading contractors and rail contractors are still working on some of the infrastructure and the rail will be used to move some of the building materials for the rebuild.
"But more importantly we're taking approximately 2000 trucks off the inland road, which is very important," Reidy said.
KiwiRail had hoped to have the route opened by November.
"So it's at least four months ahead of schedule," Reidy said.
After the earthquake more than 100 slips and landslides buried the line, while about 60 bridges were damaged.
Repairing the "devastating blow to the network" was a mammoth task and one of the biggest rail rebuilds in New Zealand since World War II, Reidy said.
Hazards around the railway line would be assessed before the re-opening.
"There's 750 damaged sites, so we've had a very, very rigorous look at all those.
"The key slips have been scaled away, there'll be mesh netting rock bolted to cliffs, they've designed it so if rocks did fall down they'd fall into bunds, we've built some rock shelters and there's sensors along some part of the line with monitoring systems and cameras.
"So if there is a a slip our control centre will know and will be able to stop the train," Reidy said.
Speed restrictions would be in place.
A sizeable amount of work remained to return the line to its pre-quake state, Reidy said.
"We still face challenges, with the ever-present risk of ongoing seismic activity and bad weather, which could delay the opening date," he said.
"However, getting the line open, even on a restricted basis, will ease pressure on the alternate road, which has been the main route to shift freight south since the earthquake."
The overall cost of the road and rail rebuild was confidential.
"We're not going public with any numbers at this stage," Reidy said.
KiwiRail's passenger service, the Coastal Pacific, would remain on hold until 2018.
The Main North Line carried about 1 million annual tonnes of freight before the earthquake.
- The Marlborough Express