The train driver trapped during the devastating Kaikoura earthquake has spoken for the first time, driving the first train into Christchurch today on the newly-repaired railway line.
Wayne Sullivan had just taken the controls of the KiwiRail train on the South Island's Main North Line when the giant magnitude-7.8 quake struck just after midnight on November 14 last year.
He spotted dust falling from a tunnel he was about to enter north of Kaikoura and started to hit the brakes.
"It was pretty intense," he said today as he brought a train carrying goods from Picton into Christchurch for the first time in ten months.
He was trapped overnight by the quake.
About 25 minutes after the quake struck, he escaped up a hillside, fearful of tsunamis hitting the coast. "Definitely the blood was flowing," Sullivan said.
Having moved to Christchurch in June 2011, the Australian-born train engineer had experienced quakes before and knew how to act.
He said he had no second thoughts getting behind the controls and was glad to drive into Christchurch today, which he said was a "symbol of how you could overcome these things".
Following November's earthquake, there were around 60 major damage sites, including tunnels, bridges and embankments.
The railway was buried under more than 100 slips and landslides, with around 60 bridges suffering damage and repairs required at more than 750 sites.
This morning's train was driven from Picton to Kaikoura by KiwiRail locomotive engineer Paul Foskett, who had just finished his shift 15 minutes before the quake struck and had started driving home to Blenheim.
His car was thrown across the road and he witnessed other cars drive into holes created by the quake.
Foskett's colleagues spent a worried night searching for him, and it wasn't until daylight that he was located sheltering in a farmhouse. He spoke to an enthusiastic crowd at Kaikoura today about his experiences and how he thought he'd never have returned to the Main North Line given the damage.
"How wrong was I?" he said.
Transport Minister Simon Bridges said the return of the key freight service was "an immense achievement".
"[It] will take pressure off the inland routes while helping with the rebuild of State Highway One during the day," Bridges said.
The return of rail, even in a limited capacity, will take around 2000 trucks off the road each month, Bridges said, building to 4000 trucks when the line is fully operating again by the end of the year.
A sculpture by internationally-renowned local artist Ben Foster was unveiled at this morning's event, to provide a lasting marker of the effort put in by the 1500 people involved in the rebuild.
It features pieces of twisted track salvaged from IronGate, north of Kaikoura, where Foster regularly surfed before the quake.
"This sculpture reminds us that change is very much a constant, the twisted rail communicating the raw power of mother nature, and may stand as a constant reminder of how resilient we all are as it reaches upward," he said.
Today's freight service operated during the day, however after today KiwiRail will be running a limited, low-frequency freight service at night.
This is so the vital work of continuing to rebuild the road and further repair the rail line can continue.