Businesses in Murchison and St Arnaud are booming, with traffic driving through the two small towns increasing by more than 2700 vehicles a day after slips caused by last week’s massive 7.8 earthquake closed State Highway 1 near Kaikoura.
New Zealand Transport Agency figures show that 2700 vehicles, including 550 trucks, were travelling on SH1 between Christchurch and Picton every day.
Those vehicles are now using the shortest alternative route though Murchison and St Arnaud, almost tripling the traffic volumes through those towns from 1500 to 4200 vehicles a day.
If anything, NZTA spokesman Andy Knackstedt, says that figure is an underestimate because there will be “a larger number of trucks than the pre-quake counts as the rail freight traffic, which used to be carried along SH1, is transferred onto trucks.”
Andy says the traffic numbers will also be boosted by the earthquake response and recovery traffic using the SH7 Murchison Highway.
And that’s not about to change anytime soon with NZTA regional performance manager Pete Connors saying that the “scale and the complexity of the slips are unprecedented in New Zealand” and reopening SH1 between Picton and Christchurch will be a “huge job that will take a number of months.”
St Arnaud Alpine Store co-owner Elaine Richards says the impact of the closure of SH1 on their business has been huge with pie sales skyrocketing from 200 a week to 1000.
Sales of fuel have also increased by around six-times and, for the first time, trucks are stopping to refuel at the store.
“It’s only been a week but we’ve had about three times the number of people through the store,” Elaine says. “We are selling lots of pies and sandwiches and coffee but the people aren’t sitting down and eating – they are on the go.
“We’ve had to employ four more staff to keep up and we’re open longer. After 7.30pm it’s mainly trucks stopping for fuel – last night we were open to 10.”
Murchison resident Mick Hopkinson says the impact of the closure of SH1 was immediate with “a lot more traffic noise, and a lot more traffic”.
“They come off the ferry 150 at a time, and spread out,” Mick says. “In two or three hours they come whizzing through – we are starting to see little pods of trucks parked in laybys.”
The Murchison information centre is also experiencing the explosion in traffic volumes. Robert King-Tenison says the volume of trucks was “really noticeable when you have one road through a small town – it’s constant.”
They were also seeing a lot of tourists who had intended travelling the Kaikoura route.
The information centre is pushing them on to the West Coast, from Karamea right down to the glaciers.
Robert says if SH1 is not reopened for the peak of the tourist season in January and February, it is “going to be completely whacky”.
Tasman district councillor for Lakes-Murchison, Stu Bryant, says the traffic increases are already causing a few problems. Engine braking signs had been erected at St Arnaud for trucks coming from the north and heading downhill into the township.
People coming to relax there for the weekend or a holiday did not want to hear truck airbrakes all night, Stu says.
Businesses are also struggling to find enough staff to cope, and in turn accommodate those extra staff members – they also had to find places for all the trucks to park.
Andy says NZTA is “fully aware of the impact this will have on the communities located along this route and the issues for road users.”
“We will be investing additional time and resources to maintain the road to the level required to safely cope with a significant increase in traffic and ensure people’s safety. We will also work together with communities to listen to their concerns and manage the impact on local residents and businesses.”