The earthquake-damaged coastal road south of Kaikoura will reopen before Christmas, road transport officials vowed today.

Contractors using a combination of heavy machinery, helicopters sluicing by monsoon buckets, and crack abseiling teams have cleared more than 25 slips over the last three weeks.

Just "three or four" slips remain across State Highway 1 south of Kaikoura, NZ Transport Agency regional performance manager Pete Connors said today as media were given a tour of the key route to Kaikoura which has been largely cut off over the last month.

Road tunnels on SH1 have been cleared of debris which slipped from the cliff-sides in the magnitude-7.8 quake of November 14. Train tunnels, however, are still blocked in multiple places and appear many months from being reopened. Railway tracks are still covered in debris and littered with boulders and rocks.

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The NZTA had aimed to reopen the road to residents and essential services by "mid-December".

But heavy rain over the weekend had set work back a few days and it was now likely to reopen early next week, Connors said.

The goal, Connors said, was to allow travel without the convoy restrictions of the Inland Rd which has suffered even more significant damage.

"We want to open it with as few restrictions as possible," he said.

Rail tunnels remain blocked along the route south of Kaikoura. Photo / Kurt Bayer
Rail tunnels remain blocked along the route south of Kaikoura. Photo / Kurt Bayer

"If you'd seen this road two or three weeks ago, we've done some incredible work.

"[Reopening] will be very positive news for Kaikoura obviously and just take some pressure off Route 70 [Inland Rd] where we probably have some bigger problems than in here."

Diggers were today working to clear the main slip on the road, known as slip 14. A constant stream of eight trucks moved back and forth, being filled up with dirt and other debris before carting it off.

The debris is being dumped at various spots along the coast where Connors said it could later be used for any detours or in making the road and roadsides safer.

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Around 200,000 cubic metres of debris has already been cleared from the road south of Kaikoura and in the Hundalees area.

State Highway 1 between Cheviot and Oaro has already been cleared and is easily passable in a two-wheel drive vehicle. Slips have been removed and where the road had cracked, peaked, or had crevasses, it has been patched up, but will require more permanent repairs at a later date.

A team of abseiling contractors assess the stability of the cliffs along the road south of Kaikoura. Photo / Kurt Bayer
A team of abseiling contractors assess the stability of the cliffs along the road south of Kaikoura. Photo / Kurt Bayer

Abseiling teams on the coast were dislodging loose rocks and checking slopes near powerlines where helicopters couldn't reach, said Downer engineer Jon Wood.

Stabilising the mountainsides from further aftershocks or heavy rainfall is a major factor, contractors say.

Shipping containers like those which have been such a feature in post-quake Christchurch have been placed on the roadside at various places to protect workers and any motorists from further rockfall.

Connors said that while the road will be one-way in places, much of it will have both lanes open.

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Motorists will need to take extra care once it's open and to allow for a longer travel time, Connors said.

The status of State Highway 1 north of Kaikoura, however, remains unchanged.

"It's too early to determine where we are with that site," Connors said.