The NZ Transport Agency says work clearing the gorge will ramp up to 24/7 operation as of tonight following the completion of benching operations.
NZTA Palmerston North state highways manager David McGonigal says crews have had another week of excellent progress clearing the massive slip, and the benching operation has made the site secure enough to begin working at night.
"We're finished with the benches and the site is sufficiently stable to enable crews to work at night, meaning it will be a 24/7 operation from tonight onwards."
Mr McGonigal says that as of yesterday, the NZTA had removed 230,823 cubic meters of material from the face of the slip, and the crew has reached some major milestones, including the completion of benching work and the beginning of an all-out assault on the rest of the slip material.
"Tonight, we're starting a night shift from the Ashhurst end of the gorge. This is a major development and it means we can go full tilt, 24/7 carting from this side. But the slip still poses challenges for everyone on the job, so we will have an experienced spotter onsite to ensure the safety of the excavator operator, bulldozer operator and truck drivers."
Mr McGonigal says both the gorge and dump site will be well lit and a 50kph speed restriction will be put in place at the dump site on Gardiners Rd on SH57.
"An electronic sign with flashing strobe lights and a caution message will also be in place 24 hours a day, and we'll be doing special inductions for staff working this new shift, to cover off all the hazards and procedures that go along with night work. Safety remains paramount at all times on this job. We're proud of our safety record to date and we intend to keep it that way.
"We've also cut a track off the working platform down to the road at the Ashhurst end. This track will allow us to transport fuel and other supplies up to the worksite. It's much easier-and cheaper-than having to bring in a chopper every time we need to top things up."
Mr McGonigal says that once the slip material is cleared, it is likely to be a number of weeks before the bridges underneath the slip can be repaired and the road reopened.
"We've been able to take an early look, which has shown that some of the bridge beams have buckled and there are some pretty big cracks in the concrete. But we'll have to fully dig the road and bridges out before we can properly assess the damage and give a firm estimate on repair times."
Mr McGonigal says the NZTA is continuing work on the alternative routes, particularly on the Woodville side of the Saddle Rd.
"We've got traffic using the new realignment on the Lower Saddle Rd Curve (Oxford Rd/ Woodville end), but there is still a fair bit of work to be done. There will probably be some disruption over the next week, but once this work is finished it will make a big difference to this bit of road. All going well weather-wise, we should have this done by the Easter break."
Meanwhile, drainage work on the corner further up this hill is finished, and the kerb and channel have been installed. Crews are getting this section ready for resurfacing, which is planned to begin after Easter. Another section of damaged pavement in this area is also programmed for repair. The NZTA will begin the initial drainage work the week of Easter, but as this work is off-road it won't impact holiday traffic. After Easter, the NZTA will stabilise and fully resurface it.
Priority at the Woodlands Rd/SH3 intersection has been changed until the gorge reopens. Traffic exiting Woodlands Rd onto SH3 and from SH3 heading into Woodlands Rd will have right of way. Traffic coming from Ballance (Gorge) on SH3 will be required to give way to all traffic.
Mr McGonigal says the tireless efforts of road crews and the ongoing patience of motorists and the local community continue to be greatly appreciated by the NZTA.
All Manawatu Gorge updates and media releases, plus more photographs and diagrams, are on the NZTA's dedicated Manawatu Gorge web page(external link).