16 November 2015

Rachel Berry

Profile: Steffan Thomas – On the Road to Recovery

Steffan Thomas

Christchurch City Council staff were among the first responders to the Canterbury earthquakes. Engineers like Steffan Thomas were integral, their knowledge and experience essential to assess damaged buildings, keep residents safe and get the city’s transport network up and running again. 

When the first of the Canterbury earthquakes struck in September 2010, Steffan Thomas was 12 months into his tenure at Christchurch City Council (CCC). He’s the roading/transport engineer who manages CCC’s Transport Rebuild Unit, set up 12 months ago to repair and rebuild damaged roading and transport assets. There are 12 people in the team, working on key projects including reopening Sumner Road, rebuilding the Lichfield Street Car Parking Building, implementing the An Accessible City (AAC) plan and running repair work programmes for roads and retaining walls.

In 2011, Steffan was listed on the Roll of Honour as part of a group of recipients of the IPENZ Fulton-Downer Gold Medal – President’s Award. This was awarded to IPENZ Members who were active in the earthquake response for their outstanding contribution to public service.

How have you been involved in the earthquake response?

For the first few days, I was involved in the Emergency Operations Centre (EOC) – set up immediately after the first quake – assessing, prioritising and assigning customer requests and updating situation reports. The atmosphere was electric, a real hustle and bustle of activity. We were overwhelmed by the number of requests from residents advising us of damage to infrastructure, particularly roads, water and sewer pipes, and the presence of liquefaction material. CCC staff were the EOC’s main personnel resource. We were put on a roster and the EOC was staffed 24/7.

On 9 September, I joined a team identifying, assessing and isolating potential fall hazards from earthquake-damaged buildings within the inner city cordon. After the cordon was lifted four days later, construction work started to repair the damaged buildings, which closed roads and footpaths and restricted road widths. We needed to keep the city running, so I set up the Traffic Management team to co-ordinate the works and make sure the central city transport network didn’t grind to a halt.

What happened after the February quake?

The immediate priority was to protect the public from hazards. I established the central city red zone and was responsible for deploying temporary traffic management and cordons to isolate hazards city-wide. As things started to settle down, we set up a joint project with the Canterbury Earthquake Recovery Authority (CERA), who controlled access to the red zone, to reopen roads section by section as hazards were removed or isolated. I coordinated the CCC aspects – road repairs, footpaths, streetlighting, traffic signals and underground services – while CERA took care of the building hazards.

Like in September, we set up the Traffic Management team to get the roads open as quickly as possible. We’d refined the process of deploying cordons and temporary traffic management by this stage and had a better idea of what we needed to do. One big issue was the limited supply of fencing and other traffic management equipment. A lot of resources had been deployed the first time around, some of which could be salvaged but some had been damaged by falling material. We procured resources from around the country and fabricated an additional 30 kilometres of fencing.

At the same time, we needed to start the complex task of planning the new central city transport network. The An Accessible City (AAC) working group was set up, with representatives from CERA, NZ Transport Agency, Environment Canterbury and CCC, including myself. Its objective was to create a balanced transport network that met the public’s desires for the city – fewer vehicles, better pedestrian facilities, more trees, separate cycle facilities – but still provided for vehicles and public transport.

“We needed to keep the city running, so I set up the Traffic Management team to co-ordinate the works and make sure the central city transport network didn’t grind to a halt.”

How far have you come in rebuilding the city?

We’ve achieved a lot in the years since the earthquake, mostly behind the scenes, but in the last 12 months we’ve really seen progress in Christchurch. The Stronger Christchurch Infrastructure Rebuild Team (SCIRT) are approximately 70 per cent through their programme, the vertical rebuild is well underway in the central city and our AAC projects, including Copenhagen cycle lanes (with kerbs that separate the cycle path from both the traffic lane and the footpath), better pedestrian facilities and slow streets (designed for a reduced speed limit of 30 kilometres per hour) to the CBD, are under construction.

From the public’s point of view, it’s a “is the glass half full or half empty?” situation. You can look at all the amazing work that has been completed or is under construction, or you can focus on the empty lots. I’m a “glass half full” person. That said, there’s a long way to go.

What have been the highlights of the rebuild process?

It’s rare to contribute to redesigning your city’s transport network. We’ve been able to implement ideas we’ve been discussing for decades, like the Lichfield/Tuam one-way swap (see below).

It’s been great to collaborate with other organisations. There’s the occasional report that key organisations don’t work well together, but it’s been the opposite. I’ve been involved in projects that are prime examples of multi-organisation cooperation, like CERA and CCC’s work to reduce the red zone cordon, and the AAC project. I’ve worked with incredibly passionate people from different organisations all trying to do their best for Christchurch.

What advice would you give to engineers who find themselves in a similar situation?

You’ll need to take the lead on critical decisions with life or death outcomes based on limited information in a short timeframe. Trust your instincts and your training. My engineering background meant I could advise on what could be done, and the safety impact of what was proposed. All you can do is carefully consider the information you do have and make the best decision you can.

“I’m proud of how I led my teams through the earthquake response.”

What do you know now that you wish you’d known beforehand?

The importance of good record keeping. The September earthquake was about reacting to the information we were getting. Everything was done on paper so, initially, we didn’t have accurate records about where traffic management had been deployed. By the February quake, we had records and systems in place so things ran more smoothly.

What are you most proud of?

The way the whole of Christchurch City Council responded to the quakes. We’ve taken a bit of criticism about how the recovery has gone – it’s never possible to please everyone. At the time City Council staff stepped up and successfully responded to the issues at hand. I’m proud of how I led my teams through the earthquake response. You always think you’ll be a good leader in an emergency or high stress situation – it was good to find out I am.

The Lichfield/Tuam one-way swap

Lichfield/Tuam one-way swap

Within Christchurch’s CBD there is a network of one-way streets, made up of one-way pairs; two adjacent roads where one runs in one direction and the adjacent road runs in the opposite direction. 

The Lichfield Street (eastbound) and St Asaph Street (westbound) pair used to be separated by Tuam Street, which ran two ways. The rebuild gave the opportunity to put a long-standing suggestion into action – swapping Lichfield Street and Tuam Street. Lichfield has become a two-way street and Tuam the one-way eastbound street. 

Now, Tuam Street continues directly on from Riccarton Avenue. Because general traffic has moved onto Tuam Street, fewer vehicles use Lichfield Street, which borders the Retail Precinct and bus interchange. This helps consolidate the slow core of the city – one of the aims of the An Accessible City plan.

Image: Streets and Spaces, Design Guide, CERA.

Find out more – An Accessible City plan

“Reimagining Christchurch” (page 44 of the November/December issue of Engineering Insight) looks at the city’s transport network rebuild plan in more detail.

Read Engineering Insight November/December – Rebuilding a City