South Island’s new winter highway management explained

Changes to South Island winter highway management announced last week by Waka Kotahi NZ Transport Agency have provoked opposition, criticism and a Change.org petition doing the social rounds.

UPDATE 17/6/20: check the link here for our full interview with South Central NZTA Manager Peter Connell which has more on how the whole system works and why it should be better for all users.

Background:

The ski fields along SH 73, the route from Christchurch to the West Coast via Arthur’s Pass 9 (that’s everyone from Porters to Cheeseman to Temple Basin) have been worried about the effects.

So when the online petition lobbed in Snow Action’s feed we set out to see what the fuss is all about. A first apparent application of the new policy over the weekend set the cat among the pidgeons to put it mildly.

Road clearing © Nic Lever

It sounds pretty bad in the blurb with the petition, so taking it at face value no wonder people are signing:

The new policy states that the road will close the moment any snow begins to fall, and will not reopen until the snow has stopped, and all works on the road have been completed. No traffic will be allowed on the passes during these times, regardless of how little snow has accumulated, or vehicle types or how well prepared they may be for winter driving conditions. It is very clear to regular users of these roads that this policy goes way beyond what is reasonable, and this will have significant effects for those of us that wish to access the high country throughout winter.

... 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.

But is the new policy actually going to do any of the above?

We asked Waka Kotahi/NZTA (New Zealand Transport Agency) to explain the new policy in more detail. Locals are already apparently worried about it, as the petition illustrates. For visitors, especially skiers and boarders doing classic Kiwi ski roadies it could be a big drama. For example, anyone driving up from Queenstown or Wanaka to Christchurch crosses Lindis Pass north of Wanaka. There’s not much for kilometres in either direction, so not a great spot to be randomly stopped for hours for a little bit of snow.

According to Waka Kotahi/NZTA there is a lot less to worry about than petitioners think. The changes are designed to lessen delays, improve safety and minimise accidents.

Road Closed sign on Arthurs PAss Hwy 73

“The South Island ski fields will be open for business, and people will be able to access them safely by road – hopefully with fewer delays and disruptions than in previous years” a Waka Kotahi spokesperson told us.

“To clarify, in spite of the wording of the petition, the procedures being introduced for SH73 this year do not mean that the road ‘will close the moment any snow begins to fall, and will not reopen until the snow has stopped’ or that ‘no traffic will be allowed on the passes during these times, regardless of how little snow has accumulated’.

“Waka Kotahi NZ Transport Agency’s safety procedures for the operation of alpine passes are reviewed and updated every winter in response to feedback from road crews and highway maintenance teams from the previous season, with the aim to make roads safer for drivers and road crews, and to reduce delays for all road users on their journeys.

“The change being introduced for Arthur’s Pass (SH73) this year brings it into line with the system which has been used successfully on the Lewis Pass route (SH7) since winter 2017. The aim of this change is to reduce the frequency and the length of unplanned road closures, and to make travel safer for everyone. [Lewis Pass is the quickest way up from Christchurch to Rainbow Ski Area]

A little can turn into a lot © NZTA

“The Arthur’s Pass route is one of a few remaining highways in the country which has allowed limited use of chains in some winter conditions. The use of chains has typically only delayed the implementation of full road closures in heavy snow or ice conditions in previous seasons by about an hour.

“Driving conditions on all alpine highways can be treacherous during the winter. In addition to serious injury crashes, there are also many non-injury crashes (which may not be reported to police) on SH73 involving vehicles sliding off the highway into ditches or off a bridge approach, requiring the highway to be temporarily closed while crews or cranes get vehicles back on the road or tow them away. We believe the new system for Arthur’s Pass will reduce the frequency of these incidents, resulting in fewer temporary closures and disruptions for drivers and better access for more people between the West Coast and Canterbury and to local ski fields.

“Waka Kotahi’s road crews now have access to better de-icing systems and machinery than they did in the past to make highways safe to use without chains in winter conditions. This is one reason why the Lewis Pass Open/Closed system has worked so well over the past three winters, and why we believe SH73 road users will see the same benefits.

“Given the success we have had managing the Lewis Pass using this approach, in place since 2017, we wanted to extend the same system to the Arthur’s and Porter’s Passes for everyone’s benefit. It is simpler and safer for both road crews and road users in terms of fewer delays and less diversions caused by drivers getting stuck in snow drifts or sliding on ice.

“The delays for road users on the Lewis Pass have been of shorter duration using the Open/ Closed system, with road crews able to focus on clearing and treating ice and snow to provide safe driving conditions, instead of using this time responding to vehicles that have become stuck when using chains. This also provides a safer environment for road crews to work in as they aren’t in the ‘live lane’ in these treacherous conditions.”

Lindis Pass north of Wanaka
Lindis Pass north of Wanaka © Nic Lever

“Drivers can rest assured that they will be able to access the ski fields and other destinations safely this winter. The main passes between Canterbury and the West Coast (Lewis, SH7 and Arthur’s Porter’s SH73) are typically closed on average 4-6 times a year, and in most cases closures are for four hours or fewer.  

“Residents and business owners along SH73 are also eligible for winter permits which will enable them to use the highway for local travel in winter conditions so long as they are well equipped (eg with four wheel drive vehicles and chains) to do so. We will continue to work with emergency services in adverse conditions to ensure their vehicles can get through.

Lewis Pass snowclearing crew © NZTA

“Waka Kotahi is meeting with ski clubs, residents and affected local councils to discuss the safety procedures for SH73. We will closely monitor the impact of the new safety procedures on winter travel and make amendments if needed to ensure the route remains safe and reliable.”

Which all sounds pretty reasonable.

Lewis Pass getting a scrape © NZTA

So before you sign this, or indeed any, Change.org petition, might be better to check the details/facts and make an informed decision.

For example, saw this comment relating to Hwy 73 closures over last weekend:

“The pass was closed for more then 12h because of 5cm snow on the porters pass and 1cm on Arthur’s pass. NZTA’s point is to give the clearing teams more room to work. So that means to me their clearing teams couldn’t clear 5cm of snow in 12h.”

This made some headlines in local media. So everyone gets more angry .. but why was the road closed? According to NZTA

“The weekend closure at Arthur’s Pass was about ice not snow and there was black ice in a number of places around Canterbury late Saturday early Sunday morning – a stretch of highway in Christchurch was closed for a few hours due to a crash.”

Seems like the armchair experts are out in force on this one. Hopefully the NZTA and stakeholders can nut out any issues ahead of the main ski season start ups. We will update this with more as we hear from those involved.

Ohau ski area car park
Ohau carpark – get to here and you think it’s easy back on the highway bitumen .. but don’t relax © Nic Lever

For Aussie visitors after surviving the ski field access roads the highways generally seem to pale by comparison.

Like us in our ageing JUCY hi-ace campavan a couple of years back – after Cardrona, Ohau and Hutt roads it was easy not to think twice about the wide bitumen highways. But with black ice the highways can be far more dangerous than gravel access roads, which usually provide at least some traction (a good thing when there’s no barrier between you and a cliff drop off.)

So don’t get cocky just because you made it up to a couple of them..

Some handy links in season:

Waka Kotahi publish some winter driving tips here

Hwy 73 at Lake Lyndon © NZTA