“You don’t walk in the door knowing you’re going to have a relaxing day. Every day brings you something you haven’t seen the day before, or ever before.”
Such is the nature of Roxanne Hilliard’s job, as manager of the operations centre that aims to keep traffic moving as smoothly as possible during any number of incidents and disruptions.
Based in the Wellington suburb of Johnsonville, the New Zealand Transport Agency’s Wellington Transport Operations Centre (WTOC) manages traffic flow in 12 urban centres from New Plymouth to Dunedin.
It does so using 300 highway cameras, countless intersection cameras supplied by organisations such as police and local councils, and radio communication from police and emergency services.
It is a complex business, with an algorithm determining how often traffic signals should change, depending on traffic flow.
Crashes are a common source of traffic disruption, and this is when the team, which works round the clock, has to kick into action.
“For example, if there’s a crash on State Highway 2 [in Lower Hutt], we might look at what the Melling [signal] phasing is doing, and we might give priority to a different part for longer, or hold a few people back so they can clear the incident, or we might push one lane a bit faster.”
The centre also has other tools at its disposal, such as electronic road signs (variable messaging systems) and social media sites to inform people of delays and alternative routes.
The control room has almost 30 screens set up for traffic monitoring, including rotating live traffic cameras and weather forecasts.
It has dedicated staff looking after the South Island, Wellington’s Victoria, Terrace and Arras tunnels, and the police desk, as well as a specialist social media communicator.
It also manages traffic signals for major events, such as the University of Otago graduation ceremonies that took place in Dunedin last week.
Each day is a challenge, but none have more been more challenging than last November’s double-whammy of the 7.8-magnitude Kaikōura earthquake, followed by floods the next day.
“But the best thing about that was the way Wellington came together and dealt with the situation collectively.”
In November, a 24-hour rail industry strike gave the team a fresh challenge, as the average 32,000 weekday passenger journeys were cancelled and people looked for other ways to commute.
Despite the team’s efforts, the increased traffic volumes resulted in 35-minute morning peak delays into the city on State Highway 2, and 15-minute delays using SH1.
There was an 11 per cent increase in westbound traffic during the morning peak on SH58 from Hutt Valley towards Porirua, and a 9 per cent increase on the afternoon return journey.
“Every day’s a different day, and every day’s a hard day,” Hilliard said.
“We can be dealing with things like wandering stock in rural areas … then you can be dealing with a truck fire, or a breakdown.
“But we have a really lovely culture here, so we live and die by our culture.
“You’ve got to be able to invest yourself, and everyone here is really invested in what they’re doing.
“There isn’t one person who works here that doesn’t have a passion for your journey, to get you safely from Point A to Point B and to be informed on that journey.”