The Australian rail sector is calling for a clear statement from governments that rail freight is an “essential service” and can continue to operate despite coronavirus (COVID-19) shutdowns.
“With state borders around the country closing, rail freight is more important than ever. It needs to be clear that essential services such as rail freight movements can continue during this time,” said CEO of the Australasian Railway Association (ARA), Caroline Wilkie.
The Australian Logistics Council (ALC) also reiterated the need for governments to take a definitive position on the status of rail freight.
“It would be helpful if governments at all levels reinforced this point in their communications and made it clear that freight operations will not be impeded by border closures,” said ALC CEO, Kirk Coningham.
The statement follows border closures in Queensland, Western Australia, South Australia, and the Northern Territory and shutdowns of “non-essential services” in NSW and Victoria.
In some cases, the demand for rail freight is increasing, as Matthew Roberts, rollingstock operations manager at CFCL Australia (CFCLA) highlighted.
“Our assets and maintenance workshops are running as normal ensuring the servicing, maintenance and continuation of rebuilds of rollingstock for rail operators and other rail freight shippers continues. The CFCLA leasing business is also working with customers to increase the supply of locomotives and wagons in service in some areas.”
However, as supermarkets, pharmacies, and other retail stores remain open, rail freight is required to keep supply chains moving.
“ALC’s conversations with governments and regulators at federal and state/territory level have been focussed on ensuring freight and logistics across all transport modes remain classified as an essential service. So far, that advice is being accepted, and as a result, our supply chains are continuing to function,” said Coningham.
To date, freight is yet to be told to reduce services.
“The COVID-19 situation is unlike anything we have faced, but rail freight is providing the backbone to our nation’s supply chain during these challenging times. Our members are keeping freight moving, ensuring that essential goods such as canned food, toilet paper and cleaning products continue to get to where they need to be,” said Wilkie.
Transport for NSW secretary, Rodd Staples, said that the agency will work to ensure freight continues in NSW.
“A key part of our role is ensuring goods and services are able to get to where they are needed most, including supermarkets. The team is continuing to work closely with the freight industry to ensure we don’t see any barriers emerge in critical supply chains, across roads, ports and rail.”
While curfews have been lifted for road freight to supply supermarkets and stores that have had to deal with panic buying, curfews still apply to rail freight movements. Additionally, as passenger demand drops, there is the potential for increased freight movements.
“We appreciate the need to keep critical passenger train services moving in our cities but if we see a reduction in passenger services on metropolitan networks, rail freight access should be increased to these networks to facilitate the transport of essential goods. This could include modifications to current curfews to increase frequency and availability of freight services,” said Wilkie.
Coningham also highlighted that the seamless movement of goods is critical at this time.
“Our supply chains cannot afford to have rail freight being delayed at check points for hours if we want to keep essential goods flowing. The health and welfare of Australian communities needs to be our priority – and in order to ensure it, we have to keep food, clothing and medicines moving to the places they need to go.”
Rail freight operators are ensuring that they are able to provide a safe and reliable service to customers by increasing cleaning procedures.
“To mitigate the potential person to person contamination risk, workshop crews are being split into small teams and working hours are staggered with crews running two shifts instead of the normal day shift reducing person to person contact as far as possible. Cleaning of workshops has increased each day and between shifts and importantly cleaning locomotive cabs has been stepped up further as they pass through for servicing,” said Roberts.
“CFCLA is taking seriously the supply of goods and services necessary to the freight sector with the health and wellbeing of all Australians being paramount.”