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Two years on: KiwiRail and the Christchurch earthquake

“The sense of relief that had occurred after the September event was erased forever from the minds of Cantabrians and the nation.

“The city and surrounding suburbs had been struck a deadly blow over the busy lunch hour, resulting in a death toll of 181.”

Those were the words of KiwiRail managers Peter Steel and Phillip O’Connell, reflecting on the railway’s response to the massive earthquake which reduced parts of New Zealand’s third-largest city to rubble two years ago this month.

At 12.51pm on February 22, 2011, a magnitude 6.3 earthquake struck Christchurch. The destruction that followed left more than 180 people dead, resulting in one of the deadliest natural disasters in the country’s history.Canterbury 1

Images of the rescue effort that followed were broadcast around the world, but many watching would have been unaware that the February 22 earthquake was one of four major quakes and 7,000 aftershocks to hit the Canterbury region between September 2010 and June 2011.

Rail rescue

New Zealand’s railway played its part in the relief effort, transporting emergency food and supplies in and out of the city.
In the moments after the quake, Phillip O’Connell, KiwiRail’s HSQE manager, and his lead rail accident investigator watched events unfold on TV in a bar opposite the freight headquarters on Auckland’s North Shore – more than a thousand kilometres from the earthquake’s epicenter.

The two men studied news coverage of the disaster to try and work out a plan of action. Confusing phone calls and conflicting reports had made it difficult to say exactly how seriously the city and its rail infrastructure had been affected.

A decision was eventually made to deploy a team of expert engineers into Christchurch to help return services to normal.

For KiwiRail’s staff, the job of trying to keep the railway operational was made even more difficult with not knowing whether friends and family were safe or not.


Asking ‘how do you prepare for an earthquake’ is something New Zealand’s railway has a lot of experience of. The country has a history of seismic events. One picture from the Edgecumbe earthquake in 1987 shows a derailed locomotive lying on its side in front of a buckled section of track.

Although there are now better measures in place to deal with earthquakes, the unusual frequency of the seismic activity in 2010/2011 had a heavy impact on passenger and freight rail services.

“We have had a number of earthquakes in the past but this was probably of greater effect than the earlier events in that it affected a major population centre and was located near the centre of our rail network in the South Island, so it affected a substantial proportion of our South Island services,” said Peter Steel.

RIMG0379With 60 per cent of the city’s hotel rooms destroyed in the disaster, KiwiRail’s popular scenic services into Christchurch have been hit badly since 2011.

On top of the lost revenue, KiwiRail was also landed with a $10 million infrastructure repair bill. The operator has had to fix bridges, straighten buckled track and replace a locomotive maintenance depot which had sunk into the concrete it was standing on due to severe liquefaction.

An account from one train driver described the moment he slammed on the brakes after feeling a jolt to discover he was just a few metres away from hitting a buckled section of track.

Vision for Christchurch

Now the city is planning its future. Rail bosses are working with city planners to fit new systems around the redeveloped Christchurch. This includes looking at solving problems with limited freight capacity and exploring the mayor’s vision for a light rail network.

KiwiRail is also continuing to look at what it can do better when the ground begins to shake.

Peter said: “The repeated implementation of earthquake response and inspection procedures during the series of earthquakes has given us significant confidence.

“We have had minor earthquakes elsewhere in the country since 2011, which have exceeded the stop trains seismic intensity, and we have been able to quickly and effectively run through the track and structures inspection procedures following these events.

“We are definitely much better prepared for the future.”


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