NZ’s winter road policy explained – insider interview

Updating this: following public meeting last week the “chains essential” category has been reinstated.

“We have heard very clearly the concerns of local people and business operators on SH73, the Arthur’s Pass route linking the West Coast and Canterbury,” says Pete Connors, System Manager, Waka Kotahi. “We thank everyone who attended the meeting at Castle Hill Village this week and Selwyn District Mayor Sam Broughton for his facilitation.

Porters Pass kept open with deicing last Thursday when it snowed heavily © NZTA

“To address the concerns raised, we have reviewed our planned management of SH73 for this winter, and we are making changes.” 

Mr Connors says that the “chains essential” category will be reinstated for winter snow/ice conditions on SH73 when required. 

“People will continue to be asked to carry and know how to fit vehicle snow chains on SH73, as on other South Island alpine and semi-alpine highways.”

The need for chains will be signalled at Springfield and Otira on each side of the passes when there is ice and/or snow at those altitudes, and other key places on the journey.

The three key places where chains are likely to be needed are the Otira viaduct, Porters Pass and Craigieburn Cutting.

Mr Connors says the priorities for managing the road this winter are to keep people safe and avoid crews needing to tow stranded vehicles out of these locations. 

“The road will be open for vehicles with chains in these places.  As in previous winters, there will still be times where parts of the route will be closed due to snow and ice or, if road crews are required to assist stranded motorists.”

Selwyn District Mayor Sam Broughton says: “It’s great to see that Waka Kotahi has engaged with the community and listened to people’s concerns, and that we have been able to work together to come to a solution that addresses people’s concerns while keeping the community safe. We’re grateful to Waka Kotahi/NZTA for meeting and listening and to the people of Arthur’s Pass and Castle Hill for their commitment, attending the meeting and making their voices heard.”

Mr Connors reiterated that in winter snow and ice conditions, West Coasters who have medical and other urgent appointments in Christchurch should consider using the Lewis Pass, via Reefton, even though it is a slightly longer journey than the Arthur’s Pass (SH73) route.

“Particularly if they are not confident using chains in freezing conditions or fear a holdup.  It is very rare that both passes are closed at the same time and road crews will always do their utmost to keep one pass open, if snow or ice is affecting both routes.”

Emergency vehicles will be assisted through by contractors on both routes if necessary.

Mr Connors says more information on the winter management of SH73 will be provided next week.

Interview with Peter Connors –

Snow Action talks to Waka Kotahi NZ Transport Agency Central South Island System Manager Pete Connors, a West Coaster himself who has spent over 30 years keeping the roads there safe.

The recently announced changes to the NZTA’s winter road management provoked criticism, including from local businesses and users such as the club ski fields along State Hwy 73, the route from Christchurch over Arthur’s Pass to the West Coast.

This is the spectacular road to access classic ski areas from Porters commercial field past Cheeseman, Broken River, Craigieburn and finally to Temple Basin above Arthur’s Pass.

Raad the signs – and check the forecasts and plan accordingly © NZTA

Of course the club ski fields have a wealth of experience among their members and committees too. So we asked them for the key issues they had with the new policy, and any other relevant points to add to the discussion.

Our thanks to Temple Basin President Hamish Peddie and other TB club members for that input

They point out that all was not perfect with the existing system, and closures had caused big dramas for the club over recent years.

“To be fair, the previous system was not working very well either and I suspect it resulted in more significant wear and tear to the road. For example, requiring chains to be used for the length from Porters Pass to Flock Hill station when the only icy section of road was at Castle Hill, all because the contractor didn’t want to set up a chain fitting area closer to Castle Hill” was one comment.

“The road would also be closed prematurely. It was difficult to access information on when it would open – whether you were waiting the entire day in Springfield or if you were waiting for internet news or news from your friends from home in Christchurch. This has caused sell out bookings at Temple Basin (60+ bookings) to be cancelled and refunded on multiple occasions.”

Their key questions were summarised as these:

How will the new policy allow skiers access to the skifields during a storm? This is the only time that it is possible to ride New Zealand powder. How will information be provided to customers so they don’t cancel their ski plans and the ski fields lose the much needed business?

Geoffrey Sullivan, a Temple Basin club member since 1974, also perfectly summed up what you need to take on board whatever current policy is.

“Well organised and committed skiers need to read the weather forecasts and get away before the storms and return when the roads are clear. And so they will need to head to ski areas with accommodation and chefs-with-altitude – like Temple Basin!”

We also asked some of the social media critics for any questions they would like us to put to the NZTA.

Some declined, preferring to simply repeat generic criticism found in the online petition, apparently content they already know the full story. Some, more constructively, did supply pertinent questions/issues, which we raised with Peter Connors in a long discussion.

One of those was the idea that decisions to close roads are being made on the basis of forecasts. These days, as Connors explains, technology has moved on and it’s real time conditions and information that dictates actions.

So if you’re not an armchair critic who already knows how and why winter road safety works in NZ, and think you know more than Pete Connors about that, read on. You will likely learn something.

One thing we learned was how climate change is already making a difference to the way they operate.

These days real time pavement temperature sensors keep crews informed © NZTA

SA: A lot of people are expressing their opinions on why and when you are closing the roads. How do you make those decisions?

The real thing is we close it because people can no longer drive on it safely, they lose traction, they lose control.

Normally it snows here and the temperature is 5 or 6 degrees and the pavement is about the same, and we can clear snow and people can keep going and drive vehicles no problem. It’s when it freezes that is the problem.

There’s a couple of things going on.

With climate change it doesn’t get so cold up there now like it used to. 10 – 15 years ago you’d never do this. The snow’s got wetter. The meteorologists and others all said to us that would happen. From being just dry and real cold when it snows it’s wetter now.

Also we’ve got better machinery, we’ve got night shifts going on. We’ve got thermometers which measure pavements, so we run our pavement temperatures all the time. We do a constant run of them. We’ve got a good mix of contracts with weather stations. Technology has come a long way from 20 years ago.

Basically now what happens up there typically when it starts to freeze is we lose control over a wide area of the network, and we end up calling people out, and instead of clearing snow we’re actually pulling a lot of people out of trouble.

It’s a very small window.

Arthurs Pass route in winter heading up from Otira
If it’s safe to do so NZTA prefer to keep traffic, including heavy traffic moving © NZTA

I’m from the West Coast, I go over there a hell of a lot. I never have to put on chains. It would be the exception to put on chains.

We think we can manage it this way. We’ve done the Lewis Pass and it has been pretty successful.

The other thing people have to realise is that this is a pretty important freight route. Generally speaking we’ve got about 2000 vehicles a day on this route. It’s over 200 heavy vehicles a day, it’s about 12-13% of the total traffic.

The best thing to stop ice and that forming is to keep heavy vehicles going over it, so it’s pretty important that we keep that side of it going, which has been the success of the Lewis Pass route (which changed to the new system in 2016).

The moment you put ‘Chains Essential’ the first thing we stop is heavy transport.

We just think for the episodes of snow and everything that we get up there we can manage it better this way.

Of course what happened the first weekend everyone says, “You just got a skip of snow through and you closed it.”

But the reality of life was we had a large portion of black ice. The police even said it was marginal, there were accidents around Christchurch. People are relating that skip of snow and think it’s everytime there’s a little snow it will close.

We’ve tried to explain that. We’ve got some graphs to put out. And we’re going to give a lot of information to the ski fields, we had a meeting with them this week. We’ve got real time weather and road information. We’re going to give them that.

All the snowplough vehicles we have got up there have got these smart pavement thermometers on them. We’ve got a contract throughout New Zealand with Met Service forecasting as well with the information coming in from their weather stations throughout the country.

What I want to stress is we’re not operating this on prediction, we’re operating on real time conditions.

It doesn’t matter if you’ve got chains on black ice. Those freezing conditions are pretty limited. The real trick to it is when you get snow often you’re better off leaving the snow there as a blanket, and then wipe it off in one go.

Instead of trying to keep grading on icy roads all the time when you’ve got people slipping and sliding all over the show. So you stop a rime building up, with minimal closures.

Leaving a cap of snow on the road and then clearing it may be the best way to avoid black ice through a storm © NZTA

We think it will work better. There’s a lot of people out there that are confused, particularly those that live on the route. We are talking to them next Wednesday. I don’t want to pre-empt, we’ve had a permit system working with them in the past. It will depend how our discretion will work. But there will be times when we are doing this that we don’t want anyone on the road because it’s simply too dangerous.

The risk now is really the duty of care we’ve got. I think the ski fields really understand their contribution to the health and safety of everybody as well. Times have changed.

What we are doing here is no different to what we do now with what we call TARPS – True Action Response Plans – which is what we do now with measuring dangerous intensity of wind and rain and we have to shut things down. This is exactly the same thing.

We are constantly refining what we do. We’ve got de-icers available that we never had before.

I remember a storm 30 years ago when we didn’t shut the road early enough and we had over a 100 vehicles stranded between Porters and Arthurs. It’s a hell of a distance, we were struggling to get people out. One old fellow got stuck in a truck and nearly died from hypothermia. We got pilloried for it. Then we bought in a process that when we did close we had to go into every vehicle and either get everyone out or leave a note to ensure that we had been to it. So we developed pretty significant processes because of the the risk to life and limb.

What other people don’t see is what happens to us in the middle of the night. Like a wife rings up and we have to go out and find her husband. We find people when no one would have known they were there, we might have gone straight past them. It gets a bit intense up there at times and we just want to avoid those times.

SA: As far as information, presumably the warnings and advisories are going to be up there already on your website ahead of the real time decisions to close, that may be taken in a short space of time, so people can be monitoring that – they can use their common sense and don’t plan to go, or to get out well ahead if you’re up there already.

That’s exactly right. We say to the ski fields we’ll get them out off the mountain. But sometimes we won’t get them in if it’s so imminent.

The forecasts have got a lot better. That last event two weekends ago was forecast. It came in at exactly the right time. But we still had 4 stock truck and trailers stuck up there. Two we got off, two caused a bit of trouble. Everybody has to take a bit of responsibility – a truck and trailer shouldn’t be up there with cattle. They should have seen the forecast and adjusted.

What we are really trying to do is keep it open more for everyone.

By everyone I mean from Christchurch to the West Coast. Those area are really suffering so they want to get the most visitors they can. Half of the people that use the road won’t even put on chains, so if they think they will have to do that they won’t go.

But if we can open up this route like we do with Lewis Pass and people can be 90% sure they will get through without chains they will go, and the businesses along the way will get more visitors. So there are lots of pluses with it.

People just see that being held up for half an hour or an hour when they can put on chains and be on their way is too much trouble.

But we are saying it’s during that gap between chains and closure that’s our real problem. We’ve got people going off the road and we’re not clearing the road, we’re doing other things like getting people out of trouble.

That’s all we’re doing. Most times on the Lewis Pass we’ve been able to clear snow and just keep the road open. If it hasn’t been freezing and it’s warm enough it hasn’t been a problem. That’s how we’ve operated it.

SA: If it snows and you leave a cap of snow that can help prevent black ice from forming whereas planing it off gets it like a sheet of glass.

Exactly, that’s the point. We can predict that. We know the pavement temperatures, we know where that’s going down too quick and we can take action. It’s a bit like whitebait running, it doesn’t happen all that often.

SA: What are the worst areas of the Hwy 73 route?

Our biggest problem is the steep grades. If it was flat we’d be okay. The three worst places are near the top of Porters Pass on the east side; Craigieburn cutting; and the viaduct on the West Coast side from Arthur’s Pass down into Otira. The grade of the viaduct is 19% that’s how steep it is. It’s bloody steep. If you’ve got black ice you’ll slide all the way to the bottom.

Porters is steep. And a couple of other pinch points. If we keep them under control, we put the de-icer out, we’re pretty right now.

Porters Pass is one of the worst sections, subject to heavy snow at times © NZTA

SA: How many years have you been working on the area?

I think I started in 1974 for Ministry of Works. I’ve been with this organisation or its predecessor since 1989. I used to look after the West Coast actually.

SA: So you’ve got over 40 years experience. And your people are going out in all conditions, day and night, in freezing cold, putting themselves on the line, to make people safe. Monitoring everything in real time. But on social media that seems to count for nothing, you are villified for supposedly imposing some ‘nanny state’ new NZ winter road policy regime on people.

Well I think we probably could have done better in the comms space. Our problem is partly we’ve just come out of COVID-19 where we’ve all been told what to do. We’re all pretty managed. We’re mad about the friggin nanny state and being told what to do.

But that’s the whole point we’re trying to get across to people, we’re actually trying to open it up more, not less.

SA: Whereas if you get one truck go off or jack-knife across the road and it’s going to be stuck for hours shut while you get heavy equipment up to sort it out. Everyone’s stuck in their cars freezing for hours.

Exactly right. That’s exactly what happens. Typically jack-knifing.

Another story on Porters once, going back 30 years. There was a patch of ice they couldn’t get to from the bottom, so they were coming from the top with salt and grit (salt was banned in 1990). They had two guys on the hoist on the truck shoveling. They were bashing down, shoveling away, then the grit truck lost control and did 360s all the way to the bottom with these poor guys hanging on to the hoist.

SA: What about the view, expressed in the online petition doing the rounds, that .. It would be understandable if the policy was to stop 2WD cars with road tyres from using these roads when it snows. But it is utterly absurd to be stopping people with alpine/winter driving experience, in suitably prepared vehicles, with good tyres and chains, from driving these roads because of a couple of cms of snow fall.

People don’t get it sometimes. They have just got to understand that sure, there are the people who tell us “we could have got through”, and there are lots of people that could.

But there are also lots of people that couldn’t. Some people drive better without chains than many people do with them. A lot of people don’t even know how to put chains on. Our people are helping them to put their chains on sometimes.

It doesn’t matter if you’ve got chains on and that black ice comes in. Chains won’t work.

A lot of people that lose control are typically 4WD vehicles with chains. We’ve got to deal with variable drivers and that’s all there is to it.

SA: The final point is you guys are talking to people, you are liasing about this a lot, nothing is set in concrete.

Yes, we are listening to people on this all round. The ski fields came up with some good ideas already. Then we’ll go to councils who have been giving feedback. We’ll take on board and do whatever we need to do to make it workable for people.

Stay tuned..

So there you have it. A new NZ winter road policy plan intended to make access better, not worse, from those charged with doing so using the latest technology and decades of experience. A similar policy has been doing that successfully for several years since being implemented on the Lewis Pass / Hwy 7 route.

Not exactly the nanny state in action; Pete Connors sounds like he is as over being told what to do as the rest of us (and in NZ the lockdown was considerably more severe then in Australia). The NZTA are holding a public meeting with stakeholders this Wednesday.

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And don’t get too scared about the road to discover the Club fields.