Transport in Milford Sound


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Transport in (and to) Milford Sound is characterised by the remoteness of the area in which Milford Sound, New Zealand is located. As the most popular tourism destination of the South Island, it nonetheless receives very large numbers of visitors, who tend to arrive and depart within a few hours (as there is little accommodation in the Sound), leading to strong demand peaks for tourism services during the noon and early afternoon hours.

To reduce this peaking, and to allow further expansion without impacting the environment or reducing tourist amenity, various schemes have been proposed to better link up the Sound, including a new tunnel, a monorail and a gondola lift.

Milford Sound.


[edit] Overview

The avalanche-prone Milford Sound road.
Tourist day-cruise boats awaiting a short but busy day.

[edit] Remote location

Milford Sound is a fjord located in the southwest of the South Island of New Zealand, located in the most remote and least populated region of the country (Fiordland). Divided from somewhat more populous areas in the east by the high southern spurs of the Southern Alps, its only other entry is a narrow channel to the Tasman Sea, which even famous explorer Captain Cook did not enter during his 1769/1770 journey, as he considered the entry too treacherous and was unaware of the large body of water sheltered behind it.

[edit] Tourist magnet

By virtue of its great natural features, Milford Sound has long since become a major tourist attraction, receiving numbers of visitors unprecedented for such a remote location, over 550,000 per year. This is expected to rise to 750,000 by 2012. A study also found that of all tourists travelling the South Island of New Zealand in summer, 54% travelled the Milford Road at some point.

Increasing the difficulties for tourism to the Sound is the location within Fiordland National Park, which prevents substantial accommodation from being built - around 90% of all tourists are therefore only on a day trip, and around 80% return in the late afternoon to Queenstown, a 12-hour round trip. Due to this long trip, an overwhelming majority of tourists arrive and depart quickly, leading to a great peaking of demand at the day-cruises terminal where the large tourist boats lie empty for most of the day, becoming extremely active only during the 3-4 hours around and past noon. For this reason it is best to fly in if you can.

The above difficulties in reaching this extremely popular destination have led to a number of serious proposals on how to better connect the attractions of Milford Sound to the rest of New Zealand, and how to increase tourism without reducing sustainability for this national natural treasure. In conjunction with these plans, proposals are also being considered how to upgrade the existing road to Milford Sound.

[edit] Existing travel methods

[edit] By motor vehicle

Tourists to the Sound arrive mainly via coach over Milford Road (State Highway 94), a high mountain road prone to avalanches in winter. The road was opened only in 1953, after Homer Tunnel was finished after almost 20 years of intermittent work. The road is one of the most dangerous public roads in New Zealand with regular crashes, and is often closed in winter. Long stretches of the road prohibit stopping due to rock or snow avalanche dangers, and the carrying of snow chains is mandatory in winter conditions. Helicopters are used during the winter to drop explosives onto the snow above the road in order to clear it for traffic however this does not completely eliminate the danger that one day road traffic will be hit by an avalanche. Also, there are no petrol stations on the whole length of the road from Te Anau to the Sound. This does not discourage up to 50 coaches and hundreds of private cars daily from making the 608 km trip from the Queenstown tourist mecca Almost 60% traveled via coach.

Future increases in traffic will have to take into account the limitations of the existing road, which features various areas lacking passing lanes (especially problematic if cars are held up behind slow coaches on the steeper sections), a number of one-lane bridges and a narrow carriageway width. Homer Tunnel also a traffic-light controlled one-way route during peak summer periods, as it is not wide enough to allow coaches to pass each other (though passing bays are provided). Improvements to both the road and Homer Tunnel are planned by Transit New Zealand, though a widening of the tunnel is considered unlikely due to the high costs involved.

[edit] By aircraft

Numbers of tourists also arrive via small planes or helicopters (or use them to overfly the Sound as part of the trip). Milford Sound Airport sees approximately 16,000 aircraft movements per year (as of 2004), most associated with flights from Queenstown. Around 35 aircraft could operate at the airport at at any one time, though this level has not yet been reached (as flights can be spread over the day better than coach trips, only about 25 aircraft operate here during peak times of the day. With the present economic downturn the number of flights to Milford Sound have reduced dramatically since 2007.

[edit] By seacraft

An even smaller number of tourists arrive via long-distance sea travel, such as on the rare smaller cruise ships entering the Sound while stopping over in New Zealand from overseas or travelling from (the relatively distant) New Zealand harbours, or alternatively on private yachts. However, few such vessels travel along the rugged southwest coastline of the Island.

[edit] Proposed improvements

[edit] Bus pooling

It has been observed that during certain times of the year (in Winter, during those times that the road remains open), coach numbers on the Milford Road do not drop as expected, even though coaches are often largely empty. It has been proposed that initiatives be considered to force or entice tourism operators to pool their transport resources for greater efficiency.

[edit] Mandatory park & ride

It has been proposed that a park & ride / shuttle bus facility should be established at a location like Te Anau, Te Anau Downs or Eglington Valley. Access to Milford Sound itself would be restricted to bus shuttles operating from here (and private vehicles during off-peak times). Staggering the departure would help reduce congestion both on the road and at the viewing spots. However, the proposal is considered to have serious issues like reducing tourism operator and tourist freedom, as well as adding transfer times to an already very long journey. Finally, it would take away the free right of access. As such, it was negatively reviewed and is unlikely to go forwards.

[edit] Other options

Expanding Milford Sound Airport, to allow larger aircraft to fly tour groups in and out of the sound, was also considered, but considered problematic as the largest aircraft that can operate within the terrain limitations of the Fiord are Twin Otter type aircraft and they can use the existing airport. Large twin turbo fan amphibious aircraft such as the Be 200 could operate on to the fiord.

Other options considered were the limitation of access to certified / compliant users (i.e. bus companies, similar to the 'mandatory park & ride' option), introducing a booking system for 'road slots' or the placing of tolls along Milford Road. All these methods share problems of restricting access, and therefore making visits to Milford Sound more complicated and costly.[1]

[edit] Proposed new methods

[edit] Milford Dart

Combining a new tunnel with special-purpose guided buses to avoid the southern detour to Te Anau on the route from Queenstown to Milford Sound, this proposal would provide the shortest possible route. Proposed by a group of South Island businessmen who also have an interest in some of the tourist operations in the Sound, this scheme would make use of the fact that the Hollyford Valley, where the existing road to Milford Sound from Te Anau turns west up to Homer Tunnel, is only a few dozen kilometres away from the Routeburn Valley (of Routeburn Track fame), in turn easily reached by existing roads.[2]

The proposal would create a 10.2 km tunnel through the mountain range and link up the existing roads with short extensions, cutting travel distances from 304 km one-way to only 125 km, with travel time reduced from 5.5 hours to 2 hours. Within the tunnel, buses would would make use of guidance technology (side-facing wheels) to allow them to travel in a tunnel with much smaller diameter than usual, thus reducing construction costs. Speeds within the tunnel are expected to be up to 80 km/h at up to 2.5 minute frequency. The tunnel is expected to have to attract at least 200,000 passengers per year to be commercially viable, and would cost around NZ$170 million.[2]

The tunnel faces a number of criticisms. One of the major hindrances is the location of both entrances in national parks, Fiordland National Park in the west and Mount Aspiring National Park in the east. While the proposed new road sections would be very short, they have already led to criticism from environmental groups which note that general policy forbids the construction of new roads in National Parks.[3] The disposal of up to 250,000 m³ of spoil from the tunnel excavation is also considered problematic. Southland business interests are also concerned that the new tourism will bypass Te Anau, and lead to unsupportable traffic demands on the aging Homer Tunnel. In December 2007 The New Zealand Conservation Authority said that it would not allow the tunnel to be built in the Mount Aspiring National Park. But the developers still want to go ahead with a longer tunnel. [4] Latest News 181109 An interim decision by the Department of Conservation will allow for the possibility of a tunnel under the Routeburn track to be considered .

The change would allow a concession application for a road to the tunnel exit to be made on the Glenorchy side.

At the Aspiring Plan hearings last July, Milford Dart Ltd director Michael Sleigh said provision for the tunnel should be included in the plan.

Milford Dart managing director Tom Elworthy said "the decision was great news."

"We are hoping to see a draft decision in the next few months, if we are given the go ahead, we will proceed with the resource consent process."

[edit] Fiordland Link Experience

This proposal intends to combine a number of innovative transport options into one trip (hence 'Experience'), while still cutting the travelling time to the Sound by about one hour each way (previous hopes of longer savings seem unlikely to be realised. Starting out in Queenstown, travellers would board 25 m length catamarans capable of carrying up to 240 people. These would then travel over Lake Wakatipu to the south-western shore of the lake 20 km away. There, passengers would travel up the mountain on an existing back-country road, using specially constructed all-terrain coaches on balloon tires (to reduce impact on the road).

Arriving at the Kiwi Burns swing bridge terminal, the tourists will then continue on on a mechanical (as opposed to maglev) monorail travelling 35 minutes through high country and native bush for a distance of 41 km, which would be the longest monorail connection in the world, before joing up with a bus park and ride facility on the existing road to Milford Sound north of Te Anau. Three passing loops to be built along the line will eventually allow four trains to run, at speeds of up to 90 km/h. Kiwi Burns Saddle, the highest point of the journey, would be at 675 m above sea level, and the higher altitude-section are to be heated to prevent snow-buildup in winter. The monorail itself would seat 160 passengers, consist of 16 jointed 2.6 m wide sections totalling 66 m in length. In the beginning, only one would be constructed.

The proposal, which is expected to cost up to NZ$ 132 million, would have to achieve around 220,000 two-way passengers per year to be viable. Compared to the Milford Dart project, the backers, Infinity Investment Group, believe that they will have an easier time achieving consents, as the proposal does not touch upon any National Parks, and the construction and operation process is considered to be very ecologically sustainable, such as the use of comparatively small foundation piles for the monorail which will be bored and placed from a working vehicle moving forward on the rail being constructed, thus making construction roads unnecessary. It is hoped that the consent process can be begun mid 2007, and the actual operation started in 2011.

[edit] Sky Trail Milford

A third option was also previously proposed around 2001, which would create a gondola route between the Caples Valley and the Hollyford valley. The proposal was a cooperation between Skyline Enterprises of Queenstown and Rotorua, and the Ngāi Tahu iwi, and was to cost around NZ$ 100-110 million. With 12.6 km length, the Skytrail would have become the longest such ride in the Southern Hemisphere, and was intended to transport 900 passengers per hour. With a duration of 35 minutes for a one-way trip, the gondola was to reduce the 12 hour round trip by about 3 hours.

The project was shelved after the Department of Conservation refused permission based on its expected impact on the pristine wilderness it was to cross. Critics such as Forest and Bird Society had, amongst other reasons, protested against the destruction of beech forest for 85 towers and 2 transfer stations, bus traffic on previously less used roads, and the despoiling of natural landscapes by gondola traffic. There was also some concern about the location of the Skytrail in an area of strong seismic and wind activity. This proposal now seems to have been consigned to the scrap heap of alternative proposals of access to Milford. The wind and snow experienced in this area seem to have put an end to it.

[edit] Other options

Further options considered at some stage in the recent decade included a new one-way route (Queenstown-Milford Sound) via Glenorchy (northwest of Queenstown) and through a tunnel in the Darren Mountains (reducing the 5 hour one-way to 2 hours for the way to the Sound The scheme had some similarities to the 'Milford Dart' scheme, but apparently did not go forward due to the high difficulties faced with building new infrastructure in the two national parks.

An even more ambitious scheme would have seen a road constructed from Haast (a coastal town north of Milford Sound, with no road connection to it at present). This would allow a multi-day round trip, for example from Queenstown to Te Anau to Milford Sound to Haast and back to Queenstown. However, high costs associated with building around 120 km of new road in a remote area (estimated at NZ$ 165-275 million) and issues with constructing a new road through Fiordland National Park were noted, in addition to the fact that the new route option could actually increase congestion on the shared part of the route (from the Hollyford Valley to Milford Sound).[1]. The proposal was therefore not considered in greater detail.

[edit] Local transport

[edit] See also

[edit] References

This article uses material from Wikipedia, "Transport in Milford Sound"

[edit] External links

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