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King: 25th anniversary of SH94 Avalanche Programme

12 June, 2008
25th anniversary of SH94 Milford Road Avalanche Programme

I am delighted to be here today in the heart of one of UNESCO’s World Heritage Areas --- Fiordland National Park --- for the 25th Anniversary of the Milford Road Avalanche Programme.

It is impossible to fly into this region without being amazed at the breath-taking scenery. No wonder this is one of New Zealand’s most popular destinations, and I am so pleased to have been invited to today’s celebration. Thank you very much to Dean Whaanga for his blessing earlier.

Before I talk about today’s celebration, I want to Transit acting chair Bryan Jackson, Downer EDI chief operating officer Cos Bruyn, Transit Board members Mike Williams and Graeme Hall and last, but certainly not least, avalanche programme manager Wayne Carran and his wife Ann and all the members of Avalanche Programme team, past and present.

Each year, the Milford Road takes many of the more than one million people who visit Fiordland from Te Anau to that jewel in New Zealand’s crown -– Milford Sound.

Described by the writer Rudyard Kipling as the 'eighth wonder of the world', Milford Sound was also voted the most attractive tourist destination in the world in a recent survey by global internet travel advisory service Trip Advisor.

Milford Road not only provides access to some of the country’s most pristine tourist attractions, it is also the backbone of a local tourism industry which generates $230 million for the New Zealand economy every year.

The tourism sector accounts for 10 to12 percent of the labour force in Southland compared to the national average of 9.9 percent of the total workforce. So tourism is clearly crucial from an economic point of view to this region, and access to its major attraction, the Fiordland National Park, is essential. The history of that access is a tale of wonder in itself.

Work started on Milford Road during the 1930s Depression. It was one of the many work schemes created by the then Liberal Government, led by George Forbes. Milford Sound, however, was inaccessible by road until 1953 when the Homer Tunnel was completed.

At six metres wide, the Homer Tunnel is very narrow, yet it needs to be open for two-way traffic during avalanche season – a potentially daunting experience for visitors used to driving on wider lanes, especially when there is an oncoming bus!

Until 1962, Milford Road was closed during the height of the winter and avalanche season, but by the late 1970s, local tourist and fishing interests had successfully lobbied for it to remain open all year round.

We can imagine how harsh life must have been for the workers who built this road and the tunnel, climbing high through the Southern Alps.

Avalanches were very much a part of their working days. Men were killed and bridge structures, road works and tunnel portals were often destroyed. At the time there was only very basic knowledge of avalanches and the warning signs.

The high rainfall, which I’m told exceeds 7000mm per year, meant avalanche dangers existed for all motorists travelling on the road and for people working on the road throughout the year.

It took the death of well-respected Ministry of Works road maintenance supervisor Robert Andrew in 1983 to spur the fledgling Milford Road Avalanche Control Programme into full development.

His fellow worker and friend Wayne Carran was there the day Robert was killed by an avalanche. Wayne’s determination that this should never happen again was picked up by Transit’s predecessor, the Ministry of Works, and the Milford team. Wayne Carran, here today, is now the Avalanche Programme Manager.

Wayne, I congratulate you and your wife Ann on receiving Queen’s Service Medals in the Queen’s Birthday Honours last week. It is a fitting tribute to the work you have done in making the programme the world-leader it is today.

The programme monitors, assesses and controls avalanche hazards on the road, and is recognised by avalanche experts around the world as one of the best programmes in a challenging part of the world.

Transit monitors more than 85 avalanche slopes along a 17-kilometre section of road capable of producing avalanches. Of these, 50 have the potential to reach the road when weather conditions are poor.

Transit has four automated high-level snow and weather monitoring stations and two road level automated weather stations. These provide round- the-clock data on wind, temperature, rain and status of the snow pack.

The information, collected from the weather stations along with MetService and field observations, is used to evaluate the risks of avalanches and make hazard predictions.

It should be mentioned that MetService’s former chief meteorologist, the late Augie Auer, couldn’t accept that nothing could be done to improve the weather forecasts in Milford Road area. Wayne Carran will recall his coming down to get a better understanding of the environment, and acknowledges it is thanks to Augie that Transit today gets reliable weather forecasts for this vital stretch of road.

As this area is a uniquely extreme environment, many innovations have been developed to improve the effectiveness of the programme. These innovations place New Zealand at the forefront of avalanche control technology and practice.

The crucial part of this programme, besides predicting avalanches, is controlling the avalanche hazards, by either not allowing traffic to stop inside an avalanche area, or closing the road and using controlled explosives to release an avalanche before it naturally occurs.

Last year, during winter, Transit opened a kiosk on Milford Road eight kilometres north of Te Anau where staff provided road users with information on safe winter driving, the state of the road and checked they had the correct tyre chains and knew how to fit them. The kiosk proved its worth and is open again this winter. It's all part of ensuring the safety of motorists on this road.”

I also understand that just this month Transit has entered into a new contract with Downer EDi Works that secures Downer’s status as the sole provider of the avalanche control programme to ensure this major risk-management process is sustainable into the future.

The new contract has a key focus on developing people with the necessary skills to manage this programme – and perhaps others worldwide. This team is already part of the international avalanche control community and I’m certain there will be more opportunities for team members to gain experience off-season in other avalanche areas of the world, and to share the skills they have developed as a result of Milford Road’s unique conditions.

Lastly today, I would like again to thank Wayne Carran and the people who work on this programme to ensure the safety of motorists and the economic viability of the region. Often, in the bleakest of weather conditions, you are out there keeping this area safe. You, and others working in the programme over the last twenty-five years, have reduced highway closures and have made a safe driving environment.

And, as I can also attest, after a visit to the programme recently, the avalanche team also make the best crayfish bread rolls in the business. Milford Sound may be this region’s best known attraction, but Wayne and Ann’s crayfish rolls are the region’s best-kept secret.

It is a real privilege being with you all today.


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