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Main North Line rebuild

At 12.02 am on November 14, 2016, the world changed for thousands of people living along the Kaikoura coast on New Zealand’s South Island, when a magnitude 7.8 earthquake brought down mountains, twisted steel and cracked concrete. 

The physical damage to both KiwiRail’s Main North Line railway and neighbouring State Highway 1 was extensive, with rail tracks thrown into the sea.  One freight train was stranded between slips, some 10km north of Kaikoura.

There were 60 sites along the Main North Line from Picton to Christchurch needing major repairs, including tunnels and bridges.

The impact on local communities was devastating as they struggled to keep going while cut off from the rest of the country. 

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The first freight train to the travel on the Main North Line winds its way around the coast south of Kaikoura in September 2017.

Main Northline Timeline
Massive slips

The Main North Line was buried under more than 100 slips and landslides like this one.

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Rail network severed

The severed rail link between Picton and Christchurch also meant there was a critical gap in the KiwiRail network.  The Main North Line had been one of the last pieces to be put in place in the national rail network and it enabled freight to travel by train and ferry the length of New Zealand.

Before the earthquake, we were moving one million tonnes of freight a year on it and carrying passengers on the scenic Coastal Pacific Great Journey of New Zealand.

The loss of that link meant all that freight had to move on to the fragile post-quake road network road, and we rejigged our freight hub in Blenheim to make that shift as easy as possible.

It made it imperative to get the line open, even in a limited way, as quickly as was safely possible.  That meant using temporary bridges in a fast but ugly approach.


The Main North Line is ceremoniously welded together from the north and south at Ohau Point (north of Kaikoura) in August 2017.

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Grit and dedication

Rebuilding the line was one of the biggest rail rebuild projects since World War II and the more than 1700 workers who tackled it showed enormous grit and dedication.

This massive disaster reconstruction effort was more than just a rail and road opening - families and friends were reconnected, businesses welcomed tourists back, freight could move easily to and across the South Island.

Rebuilding the Main North Line

This video was released on the day freight returned to the Main North Line.

Award-winning rebuild project

The scale of the achievement has been recognised both here and overseas. Among the awards it has won are:

  • Australasian Rail Industry Awards 2018, winners for the Freight Rail Excellence category
  • Rail Technical Society of Australasia Awards 2018, winners of the Biennial Project Award
  • Emergency Media and Public Affairs Awards 2018, winners for the category of Supporting the recovery of a community impacted by an emergency (joint winner with Kaikoura District Council)
  • Resource Management Law Association (RMLA) Awards 2018, winners for the Project Award category
  • Institute of Civil Engineers (ICE) Awards 2018, winner of the People’s Choice Award for the Kaikōura earthquake recovery: moving mountains to reconnect communities
  • American Railway Engineering and Maintenance of Way Association (AREMA) 2019, winner of the WW Hay Award for Excellence
  • Engineering New Zealand ENVI Awards 2019, winner of the  Supreme Award and the Engineering Impact Award



Daniel Headifen 960x540

The Kaikoura rebuild is a highlight in our history showing how our people are united by challenge.