The massive repair job on the earthquake-damaged railway line between Picton and Christchurch has scooped a prestigious North American rail industry award.

Nearly three years since the giant magnitude 7.8 tremor devastated the critical South Island road and rail corridor, KiwiRail and its project partners in the North Canterbury Transport Infrastructure Recovery alliance (NCTIR) have become the first entry from outside the United States and Canada to win the American Railway Engineering and Maintenance of Way Association's (AREMA) annual WW Hay Award for Excellence.

Previous winners include the project to rebuild stations and rail links damaged by the 9/11 World Trade Centre attack, and the reconstruction efforts following Cyclone Katrina in 2006.

KiwiRail's chief operating officer for capital projects David Gordon said it recognised the "remarkable efforts" in getting the Main North Line reopened to restricted freight services within 10 months of the November 14, 2016 earthquake and a return to 24/7 operations for both freight and tourism services the following year.

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"North America's freight railways are widely acknowledged as the best in the world. Given that the biggest of those railways have regularly won this award, it is an honour to now be recognised.

"The restoration project was one of the largest ever undertaken here in New Zealand, and while we now have a reliable line for running our freight and tourism services, there is still work being done to complete the job."

The $2 billion rail recovery efforts following the Kaikoura earthquake have already received awards from the Institute for Civil Engineering, which has a global membership from the United Kingdom and Commonwealth countries, and an Australasian rail industry body.

While State Highway 1 south of Kaikoura was badly damaged, north of Kaikoura copped the worst of the damage.

On a 40km stretch of road between Mangamaunu and Clarence, around 350,000 - 400,000 cubic metres of earth came down during the violent shaking that also claimed two lives.