West Coast – Canterbury alpine passes – open/closed clarification

4 MinutesBy NZ Trucking magazineJune 4, 2020

The NZ Transport Agency last week advised it had updated its winter highway management around the South Island. This included a change to the management of SH73 Porters and Arthur‘s Passes for this winter. The two passes form a key route linking Canterbury and the West Coast and the communities along the way. 

“The NZTA continuously reviews all its highway maintenance processes and this proposed change is no exception” says NZTA system manager Pete Connors. “We are bringing these alpine passes into line with the open/closed management regime used on SH7 Lewis Pass and Rahu Saddle near Reefton.

“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 Porters Passes for everyone‘s benefit,” he says. “It is simpler and safer for both road crews and road users in terms of fewer delays and fewer 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.”

Connors says staffing levels remain the same for the highway maintenance crews working on the passes and the NZTA will still have 24-hour road patrols in place when snow and ice is forecast. 

“We do not want West Coasters, or people who live on SH73, to think that we are reducing their access as that is definitely not the aim. A safe journey is important and making the trip safer for both road users and road crews is one of the aims of the simpler system.

“While we acknowledge that this change may seem significant, in reality the road crews always exercise discretion in terms of safety and people may not notice any change on these alpine passes.

“We will continue to work with emergency services in adverse conditions to ensure their vehicles can get through,” he says.

“We will continue to review the impact of these changes on the reliability of SH73, and should we find either the route availability is being unnecessarily affected and/or conditions mean that access is only available over a sustained length of time with chains, the NZTA will reconsider the use of chains. People also need to be aware that if there is a significant snow dump, chains will not help, and our road crews will be ploughing a safe route.”

Driving through snow at Arthur’s Pass (8 Sept 2016).

Snowy road through Arthur’s Pass (8 Sept 2016).

Chains still needed as backup

Connors emphasised that the NZTA encourages people using alpine passes to continue to carry chains in their vehicles as they pass through these high altitudes.

“If people are caught out unexpectedly in a snowstorm, chains and good supplies in your car are essential safety backups.”

People travelling to Christchurch in winter are also encouraged to plan their journeys accordingly, always factoring in the weather forecast to ensure they are able to reach appointments safely and travelling the day prior if they are able to do so.