South Island-wide transport challenges

The South Island is a large area with a dispersed population and challenging terrain. This creates a number of transport challenges.

A vast transport network

Open road image

The South Island transport network is vast and includes around 5,000 kilometres of state highways and over 35,000km of local roads as well as over 1,500km of rail lines (consisting of two main lines, two secondary lines and several branch lines).

Air transport is supported by one long-distance international airport at Christchurch, two short-haul international airports at Dunedin and Queenstown as well as eight domestic airports (Tākaka, Nelson, Blenheim, Picton, Hokitika, Timaru, Wānaka and Invercargill).

There are also two major container ports at Lyttelton, Christchurch and Port Chalmers, Dunedin, and six regional ports (Nelson, Picton, Westport, Greymouth, Timaru and Bluff).

The South Island is linked to the North Island via coastal shipping and road/rail ferries between Picton and Wellington, and to international markets through direct vessel calls to Australia, Asia, North America and Europe.

South Island transport challenges

There are a number of challenges currently facing the South Island's transport network.


Photograph of Canterbury motorwaySouth Island freight volumes are projected to increase significantly, with an extra 47.7 tonnes of freight expected to be transported on our roads in 2042 compared with 2012. This equates to an additional 1.7 million truck trips per annum.

The South Island has a high risk of natural hazards (including earthquakes, floods and landslides) which can result in significant route closures and disruption to freight services on our road and rail networks, meaning essential freight (such as food) cannot get through.

Most freight (by weight) travelling within the South Island moves within regions, rather than across them, with half of this in Canterbury.

There is a significant reliance on road freight services, suggesting there may be an opportunity to move some road freight to rail.

More on freight challenges and priorities at a regional level.

Population and tourism growth

CampervansThe population of the South Island is expected to grow rapidly over the coming years. As a result, investment in the South Island's transport network will be needed to ensure it continues to meet demand. 

Growth in tourism and an increase in both domestic and international self-driving tourists (pre-pandemic) creates additional network activity. 

The South Island has a number of low-volume but high-value routes, such as Haast to Makarora Road (SH6), which has the same value to tourism as the Auckland Harbour Bridge, despite carrying less than one percent of the traffic volumes of the Bridge.

More on population growth in Canterbury and its effect on transport.

Network resilience

Flooded roadsThe South Island's continuing risk of natural hazards places the transport network at risk of severe disruption.

Waka Kotahi's National Resilience Programme Business Case identified the South Island as having four of the top five at-risk areas for state highway disruption.

These top risk areas are located in Canterbury, top of the South, West Coast and Otago.

The South Island also includes the top four regions by criticality (the number of risks with a major or critical risk rating).

More on transport network resilience within Canterbury.

South Island transport priorities

The South Island Regional Transport Committee Chairs Group was first established in 2016 with the purpose of significantly improving transport outcomes in the South Island through greater collaboration and integration.

The Chairs of all South Island Regional Transport Committees are members of the Group, and Environment Canterbury is currently the Secretariat. The Group is governed by a shared collaboration charter.

Key priorities of the Group

The Group has identified the following areas as key priorities:

In setting these priorities, the group seeks to ensure that the needs and aspirations of our South Island communities are recognised and understood by the government.

Research commissioned

To support these priorities, the Group has commissioned research to support a better understanding of the current state of the South Island transport network.

Two key reports commissioned to date are:

  1. Motorist on Canterbury highwayHarnessing the potential of data for Canterbury's tourism and transport networks (PDF File, 1.91MB).
    This report, commissioned in 2017 by Environment Canterbury on behalf of the Group, sought to identify gaps where collecting or improving the quality of or access to existing data could lead to a better evidence base on which transport network and tourism infrastructure investment decisions could be made.
  2. South Island Freight Mode Shift Study (PDF File, 6.61MB).
    This report, commissioned in 2019, concluded there are substantial opportunities to achieve more beneficial freight mode splits by facilitating the movement of freight to rail.
2022 Freight Summit

Rail freightThe Group also hosted a South Island Freight Summit in March 2022 to develop a shared understanding of South Island freight Issues and opportunities.

A key outcome, has been engagement with the Ministry of Transport on the development of a National Freight and Supply Chain Strategy.