The infamous Cunningham’s Gap has long been the nemesis of road transport operators. The steep and winding route has been the scene of many major crashes over the years, plus it has had a long history of landslips resulting in disruptions to traffic.
Late last year it was announced the Cunningham Highway would be closed to facilitate the removal of two huge boulders posing a safety risk, however weather delayed the works. On 6 December a major landslip forced the road closure followed by others when Queensland experienced unprecedented rainfall. The wet weather resulted in a large number of landslides on the mountain crossing, including sections of the roadway on the southern side of the descent. As a result the highway was narrowed to one lane with stop and go directions in place as urgent works were commenced to address safety risks on the road.
One of the initial works carried out on the Gap was to place shipping containers full of ballast at the roadside to counter further landslides and major pinning of the rock walls was undertaken. The containers remain in place and further drilling through the rock embankment is being carried out as required.
The work being carried out is a major project with a large amount of heavy machinery in place, including drill rigs, as attempts are made to safely shore up the roadway and prevent further landslides. Concern over the condition of the major highway route has been echoed for decades, particularly by the trucking industry as major safety issues have been identified. Considering the high volume of commercial traffic using the highway, drivers and operators have constantly pointed out the dangers of overhanging rocks and some subsidence in the road surface on the downhill side of the route.
Governments have been seeking an alternate range crossing for many years however conditions are such that the building of a new highway through extremely tough and mountainous terrain would be one of the biggest road projects ever undertaken in this country – if a suitable route can be identified.
The Cunningham Highway is part of the national highway network with funding the responsibility of the Federal Government. A number of assessments on the road have been completed with recommendations and costs submitted to Canberra for consideration and action, but as yet there has been no response.
There are a number of sections of road affected by landslides and to date two have been repaired while major works are still required along the route to stabilise the highway. Queensland Transport and Main Roads is carrying out work to repair the embankment adjacent to the highway at Cunningham’s Gap damaged during the wet weather. Due to the high volume of traffic on this road and the nature of the work that needs to be carried out, some periodic major traffic disruptions will continue.
Variable message boards are in place advising road users of the closure and detour options. Traffic control is in place during the closures and drivers are advised to plan trips around the closure periods to avoid lengthy delays.
Main Roads advises the project team will minimise impacts as much as possible. All changes to traffic conditions will be advised through traffic updates on the 13 19 40 phone line and website, and roadside signs throughout the work site.
Currently travel during times when one lane sections are open sees major delays of up to half an hour in both directions. Those directing traffic are mindful of trucks on the steep incline and are working as closely as possible with road transport to keep heavy vehicles moving.
It is recommended heavy vehicle drivers detour through Toowoomba, however the flooding rains in the earlier part of the year also affected the Toowoomba Range causing some disruption to traffic flow. The alternate route for trucks using the New England Highway also results in a longer trip and some road closures on the Warrego Highway west of Brisbane.
Truck traffic from Melbourne and diverted through Toowoomba has also resulted in major traffic congestion both on the range descent and through Toowoomba’s main arterial roads.
The Gap closures and restricted traffic flows may continue for some time yet and need to be considered by operators travelling to Brisbane using the New England and Newell Highways.
Travel disruptions are causing major headaches to trucking operators in terms of longer trip times and for those using the Toowoomba travel option increased fuel costs, but don’t expect the situation to be resolved in the short term. While road sections have been opened to one lane, traffic delays will continue as safety along the route is addressed. Mother Nature has created a gap in a major road network.