KiwiRail aimed to reopen the main rail line between Blenheim and Christchurch months earlier than it did, official briefings to the transport minister reveal.

The state-owned rail operator, which employs more than 3500 staff, was careful not to publicly state its goal for reopening the line, which was severely damaged in the 7.8 magnitude quake near Kaikoura in November last year.

But written weekly briefings to then-minister Simon Bridges – briefings released to Newsroom under the Official Information Act – reveal that, in March, it wanted to have the line open as early as June 20.

The reopening was pushed back, and then mention of a particular date disappeared from the briefings altogether, as the area was battered by tropical storms and severe winter weather – and as the herculean task facing work crews became plain.

Last November’s quake devastated the coast-hugging railway which, before that, had carried more than one million tonnes of freight a year. It triggered one of the biggest rail rebuilds since World War Two.

As outlined by KiwiRail on Tuesday this week, in a statement to mark the one-year anniversary of the quake, workers had to clear more than 100 slips and landslides, and repair more than 750 individual sites. Twenty tunnels and 60 bridges were damaged.

In public, KiwiRail celebrated recovery milestones over successive months. The first specialist work train to reach Kaikoura from Christchurch arrived on June 9. In July, the first work train crossed the Clarence River, north of Kaikoura. In August, the north and south sections of the line were ceremoniously welded together. Then, on September 15, the first freight train actually pulled in to Kaikoura.

All the while, KiwiRail refused to confirm when it wanted to have the line reopened. It repeatedly talked about making good progress and that work was on schedule. But, behind closed doors, it was telling a very different story to Bridges.

In a written briefing on March 23, Bridges was told KiwiRail was aiming for an early, restricted reopening on June 20 – based on, in bureaucratic parlance, a “concept-level design, a top-down approach to quantify assessments and non-detailed assumptions”. Bridges was warned “there are significant risks of the scope changing as works continue”.

Things did change – just a week later.

Bridges’ March 30 briefing said the most realistic timeframe for reopening was then “early to mid-July” – “but this date will not be made public for some time”. Work to clear major slips just south of Kaikoura, between Peketa and Oaro, was nearing completion, the briefing said. “But the slips between Hapuku and Pines will take considerably longer as KiwiRail estimates that there’s up to 100,000 cubic metres of spoil that needs to be cleared from each site.”

No contingency

In a written agenda before an April 4 meeting with Bridges, KiwiRail chief executive Peter Reidy said its timeframes had no contingency for bad weather or other delays. By May 8, Reidy had revised the reopening date to August, with a “full, unrestricted” opening planned for the end of the year.

The August recommendation came from the board of the North Canterbury Transport Infrastructure Recovery (NCTIR) alliance, which was working on repairs to both rail and the state highway. NCTIR, formed in December last year, comprises KiwiRail, NZ Transport Agency, Fulton Hogan, Downer, HEB Construction and Higgins.

Reidy: “KiwiRail and NCTIR’s board are committed to meeting the revised reopening date.”

KiwiRail told Bridges it was getting heat from the media to reveal its reopening date – but it was sticking rigidly to the story that there wasn’t one. “KiwiRail will continue to reiterate that a final estimate for completion has yet to be set and that it is pleased with the progress that has been made.”

Mother Nature hampered that progress.

Tropical cyclones Debbie and Cook, which hit in April, further buffeted major slips between Peketa and Oaro, “which resulted in several thousand cubic metres of material falling loose from the earthquake-damaged slopes and onto the rail and road”. As was publicly revealed in May, the “northern slips” were initially estimated to contain 353,000 cubic metres of material. That nearly doubled to 623,273 cubic metres because of “severe weather events and other factors”.

KiwiRail’s June 1 update to Bridges showed those factors were starting to tell on its reopening plans. “KiwiRail’s board considers that there is a considerable amount of repair work to implement before the MNL (main north line) can reopen for restricted freight services.”

By early July, KiwiRail was avoiding mentioning an opening date altogether. It started subsequent updates with the same lines: that it was making “significant progress” but ongoing seismic activity and poor winter weather could affect repair times.

It gave Bridges a more detailed explanation on July 13, stating work ceased on July 12 and 13 because of a severe storm. Gales, heavy rain and snow affected the stability and mass of slips, making working conditions unsafe.

“The challenge of shifting landslide material is getting harder in winter as a result of poor weather conditions in the region. Materials are soaked with rain water and caked in layers of mud, making them heavier to transport to temporary and permanent stockpiles, slowing work crews down. KiwiRail notes that construction teams [are] sharing the same narrow coastal corridor are tackling similar problems as they build new sections of the rail and road network.”

North meets south – on time

Finally, KiwiRail caught a break. It told Bridges on July 27 it was organising an event for August 8 to commemorate the joining of the tracks from north and south. And that’s exactly what happened.

KiwiRail broke its public reluctance to admit its goals, sending out a press statement on August 2 saying the first freight trains “may run within a month”. The next day, it told Bridges it was aiming to have the first freight train ply the line on August 29 – pending safety sign-off from NZ Transport Agency, approval from its own board and NCTIR. A separate event in Kaikoura was scheduled for September 15, to unveil a commemorative sculpture.

The situation was still hairy. Earthworks crews north of Ohau Point, at one of the largest slips north of Kaikoura, were doing clearing work above while road and rail were built below. The slopes above were pocked with ground movement sensors.

It felt like KiwiRail was on the home stretch. It told Bridges that customers’ responses were “overwhelmingly positive” at the prospect of restricted services.

But again, the weather intervened. In mid-August, poor weather restricted KiwiRail’s access to the line for training and testing. It was decided to postpone freight’s triumphant return until September.

Bridges was told on August 31: “KiwiRail is presently scheduling events in Kaikoura and Christchurch and will advise your office of the schedule once arrangement shave been made.” The weekly report adds: “We will continue to keep your offices informed on a no-surprises basis.”

On September 6, KiwiRail announced publicly that September 15 would be the day. The event garnered “significant media coverage” – “a video commemorating the achievement has been viewed more than 90,000 times since it was published on KiwiRail’s Facebook page, reaching over 260,000 people”.

The euphoria was short-lived. Bad weather closed the line from September 18 to September 25, causing more instability. “Remedial work is ongoing,” Bridges was told on October 6. Days later, over the weekend, more than 100mm of rain fell, triggering slips across the road and rail lines.

In September, Kaikoura and surrounds had double the average monthly rainfall. In the first 10 days of October, the area had 180 percent of the full month’s average rain. That sparked 31 new slips, three of which were significant.

Bridges was told on October 13: “The slips have also damaged rock-fall catch fences and warning devices at several sites along the line and have made it unsafe for crews on the ground to begin clearing debris and repair the line.”

It was decided to close the line until October 30 and extend the hours of KiwiRail’s freight hub in Blenheim, where freight was transferred from trains to trucks.

On Tuesday of this week, a year after the Kaikoura quake, KiwiRail laid out the monstrous amount of work that’s been undertaken. In all, 1500 people have worked on the rail and road rebuild. One hundred and fifty kilometres of track between Christchurch and Blenheim was “tamped” – a tamper packs ballast under railway sleepers and adjusts the alignment and level of the track. Five thousand new concrete sleepers were laid, land under 12km of track was stabilised and rebuilt and 5km of track was realigned.

Freight trains are running at night to allow work to take place during the day. There are two return trains, five times a week. Part of their job is to move construction material for the rebuild of the State Highway, which is set for a December 15 opening.

The Coastal Pacific tourist service should start running again from mid-next year. But it’s unclear if KiwiRail will meet its aim of opening the main north line fully by the end of the year. In a statement on October 30, KiwiRail’s group general manager of network services Todd Moyle said: “We will continue to work towards restoring the line to its full operating capacity over the coming months.”

David Williams is Newsroom's environment editor, South Island correspondent and investigative writer.

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