Australia’s largest private rail freight company is calling on governments to simplify deployment and use of rapid antigen testing (RAT) to help screen essential rail freight workers for COVID.
Pacific National CEO Paul Scurrah said rapid antigen testing provides a simple, efficient method for frontline rail workers to screen for COVID at home before showing up to a shift at a freight terminal.
“RAT helps to minimise the risk of transmission in the workplace, thereby reducing the number of close and casual contacts within finely tuned rail freight supply lines,” he said.
Last month, Pacific National was forced to temporarily shut down its Sydney Freight Terminal at Chullora due to a positive COVID case and associated close and casual contacts having to isolate.
The event resulted in a shortage of available train crew and terminal operators, which in turn led to delayed and cancelled interstate rail freight services between Sydney, Melbourne, and Brisbane.
As one of the largest intermodal freight hubs on the eastern seaboard, more than 4500 cargo containers holding fresh and refrigerated food, beverages, white goods, electronics, furniture, household items, building supplies and machinery parts pass through the Sydney Freight Terminal each week.
Countries like the United Kingdom, Germany and United States had successfully deployed RAT as a quick screening tool, including use of home testing kits, to help in the overall fight to contain COVID.
Scurrah said combined with freight train crew undertaking PCR tests every seven days, RAT is an extra tool in the arsenal to help contain COVID and reduce disruptions in the national supply chain.
“Essential freight workers need to be able to conduct a RAT at home before entering a worksite, and like the PCR, the test should be covered under the Commonwealth’s Medicare Benefits Scheme,” he said.
Across the mainland, Pacific National has more than 2300 frontline rail freight workers, including train crews, terminals operators (loading, unloading and stunting freight trains) and maintenance staff.
Governments need to appreciate the finely tuned nature of the national supply chain to help maintain safe and efficient rail freight operations on the mainland, federal and state governments need to dig deeper into the many moving parts of Australia’s national supply chain.
“It’s called a national supply chain for a very good reason; it’s only as strong as each link in the chain – a COVID outbreak at a key freight terminal could cripple rail services nationwide,” Scurrah said.
Pacific National alone operates up to 800 services for 340 customers each week. The company’s 2300 strong frontline workforce operates out of 70 terminals and depots spread across the mainland.
Each month, on average, Pacific National hauls up to 78,000 shipping containers, 250,000 tonnes of bulk steel, 650,000 tonnes of export grain, and 12 million tonnes of thermal and metallurgical coal.
Pacific National is currently the only rail freight operator which hauls bulk steel around the mainland – a commodity too heavy to transport by truck. It is also the largest rail hauler of cargo containers between cities and regional centres in Australia.
Scurrah said if the highly infectious Delta variant leaks into Pacific National’s extensive national network, then the haulage of millions of tonnes each week of goods and commodities to and from supermarket distribution centres, mines, ports, and grain silos will be severely disrupted.
“With positive COVID cases likely to become more common as states ease lockdowns in an increasingly vaccinated community, our economy can ill afford the national rail supply chain suffering frequent service disruptions and delays,” he said.
Scurrah said when governments formulate future health orders, it’s important they understand the scarce availability of highly trained freight train crews. Freight train drivers don’t grow on trees.
“Along some key rail freight routes, it only takes a dozen train drivers to be taken out of action – due to being deemed close contacts for example – for services to be severely disrupted or shutdown,” he said.
It can take more than a year for a freight train driver to be fully qualified.
Pacific National recently commenced RAT trials for rail freight workers coming onto shift at the Sydney Freight Terminal and Enfield Yard.
Teams based at the company’s North Sydney office involved in planning daily rail freight services and crew rostering are also part of the trial.
Additionally, Pacific National has partnered with Australian company Atomo Diagnostics, a global leader in the development of point of care devices for rapid diagnostic testing, to trial RAT at its operations at Clyde Yard.
Both programs conform with the New South Wales Health Framework for provision of Rapid Antigen Screening. Pacific National has also introduced an incentive payment of $180 for frontline rail workers who are fully immunised.
“For the sake of national productivity, supply chain can’t be subjected to a start-stop existence,” Scurrah said.
“There was no indication governments had started to consider or develop protocols around how close and casual contacts in the national supply chain would be treated in the future,” he said.
“For instance, when community vaccination rates reach 70 or 80 percent, will essential freight workers deemed close contacts – who are fully immunised – still be forced to isolate for 14 days?”
Scurrah said if current health orders apply, then Pacific National predicts the national rail supply chain will be subject to a start-stop existence for many months to come, creating unnecessary uncertainty and angst within the ranks of frontline workers and forcing up the cost of freight services.
“The dedication and professionalism of our frontline rail freight workers has allowed the entire national supply chain to hold firm since the outbreak of the pandemic in March 2020. After 19 months of intense activity, these essential rail freight workers deserve greater certainty in future operations,” he said.