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The Picton to Christchurch rail freight line is reopening, reportedly taking 2000 trucks a month off the alternative State Highway 1.
The first freight train to run on the Main North Line has left Auckland and was expected to leave Picton about 1.30am on Friday, stopping briefly in Kaikōura before arriving in Christchurch that afternoon.
The reopening was expected to take pressure off the alternative SH1, which has been over-run with trucks since the rail corridor and adjacent SH1 closed on November 14 due to significant damage from the magnitude 7.8 tremor.
Containers being loaded onto the first freight train to run down the Main North Line from Picton to Christchurch on Friday.
A KiwiRail spokesman said the two trains per night scheduled for the line were expected to take 2000 trucks a month off the alternative highway – a number questioned by some in the trucking industry.
The most recent New Zealand Transport Agency (NZTA) traffic figures showed average daily heavy vehicle traffic in St Arnaud jumped from 41 to 542 after the quake – an increase of 1216 per cent.
Members of the KiwiRail rebuild team complete a symbolic weld to represent the joining of the line between Picton and Kaikoura in August.
In the Lewis Pass, average daily heavy traffic went from 207 to 723 post-quake, while in Murchison it increased from 346 to 924. The average increase in heavy traffic across the route was about 530 vehicles a day.
NZTA earthquake recovery manager Tim Crow said diverting around 65 trucks a day from the alternative route was "extremely helpful".
Crow said the reduction would be a 10 per cent freight weight reduction, which would "have a beneficial effect in terms of maintenance".
The slip at Ohau Point after the quake, where an estimated 110,000 cubic metres of rock and debris came down across the highway.
He said the number might rise as KiwiRail's freight service had "lightened the load on these upper South Island highways by 4000 trucks per month".
The KiwiRail spokesman said he was confident the rail operator's numbers were right.
He said customers "had been quick to commit freight volumes back to rail" as the line played an important part in the supply chain between the North and South Islands and would lower the cost of moving freight.
An aerial view of the work on the Main North Line at Mangamaunu, north of Kaikoura, in July.
But Road Transport Association chief executive Dennis Robertson said KiwiRail's estimate of 2000 trucks of the road was "optimistic", at least in the short term.
"It will reduce the trucking numbers, but to be honest I don't think significantly so."
He said the way trucking operators had "geared up" and the contracts they had for carrying freight meant he thought things would not change much for some time.
The repairs have seen hundreds of chemical welds to rejoin tracks badly damaged by the powerful November earthquake.
There was a "major shortage" of drivers in the trucking industry, he said, so a reduction in truck freight would not lead to job losses.
"The reality is that we need somewhere between two to three thousand drivers right now, across New Zealand, to meet the demand.
"It's an ongoing problem and if you could relieve some of the drivers on this route, they'll be quickly swallowed up [by other routes]."
He said it might "marginally" improve road safety on the alternative route.
"If you've got a 5 to 10 per cent reduction in vehicle movements in trucks, it would certainly reduce the exposure people have to trucks on that road".
But Robertson said it would not impact two common issues on the road – truck rollovers due to trying to drive at high speeds and crashes from drivers taking unnecessary risks on the busy road.
"The problem is we're just putting too many people down a road that's not designed for it."
The extra traffic had also impacted on the communities that live along the route, whose businesses have been scrambling to keep up with demand.
Murichison's Beechwoods Cafe manager Owen Thawley said he thought the line reopening would have only a small effect on business.
"For us personally I think that trucks don't make up a huge percentage of the people that stop here, it would be mostly buses and cars."
SH1, which largely runs next to the railway line, was still two months away from opening, and even then it was unknown exactly what condition the road would be in.
The combined cost of the rail and road rebuild has been estimated to be up to $1.33 billion.
THE RAILWAY REBUILD
The earthquake caused major damage to about 60 sites along the Main North Line, which carried about 1 million tonnes of freight annually before the quakes.
About 1500 workers have been involved in the rebuild, one of the biggest rail rebuilds in New Zealand since World War II.
Approximately 1 million cubic metres of slip material has been removed in the process so far.
KiwiRail has been running limited services at night to allow rebuild work on the road and rail to continue during the day.
The line was also being used to bring building materials to construction sites, including some of the 3000 5-tonne concrete blocks needed to build seawalls.
Their passenger service, the Coastal Pacific, would remain on hold until 2018.
Chief executive Peter Reidy said there was "still a sizeable amount of work to be done before we return the line to its pre-quake state".
Many of the repairs done to date were interim repairs that would have to eventually be replaced with permanent solutions.
The rail corridor was able to be repaired more quickly than the adjacent SH1 because tunnels protected some of the line from the worst slips and because the railway as narrower than the road.
This article first appeared on www.stuff.co.nz
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