Summer events show need for resilience focus

Kirk Coningham, CEO of the Australian Logistics Council, outlines how the effects of this summer will continue to be felt in the freight rail sector.

It is reasonable to say that many Australians have experienced a challenging beginning to 2020, and the flow-on effects are likely to affect our industry in a variety of ways over the months ahead.

The bushfires that burned through vast swathes of the continent had a devastating impact on families, local communities, and businesses. The immediate scale of the tragedy is recorded in lives and homes lost and understandably, that is where the initial focus of recovery efforts has been.

Yet in some respects, that is only the beginning of the story. With the fires now extinguished and the immediate physical threat having passed, it is becoming apparent that recovery efforts – and the cost of those efforts – will be significant.

These costs will include significant repairs that will have to be undertaken to repair damaged transport infrastructure.

Throughout the early weeks of this year, ALC has been participating in regular industry discussions convened by the Deputy Prime Minister and Minister for Transport, Infrastructure and Regional Development, Michael McCormack, which are focused on providing industry advice and assistance to the federal government in shaping its recovery response to the fire crisis.

What was already a difficult beginning to 2020 is now being further compounded by the challenges associated with the coronavirus.

As in the case of the fires, the initial focus is on protecting lives through containment and quarantine efforts. Yet, as with the fires, once the immediate threat is contained, there will be significant economic effects to consider.

Australia’s freight rail sector plays a crucial role in getting imported freight
to customers, as well as transporting Australian products to the point of export. The disruptive effects of an episode like the coronavirus have obvious flow-on effects across the whole supply chain – and these will need to be managed effectively and responsibly.

Over recent weeks, experts have warned that the ongoing restrictions on the movement of goods and people in China – our largest trading partner – are likely to adversely impact Australia’s agricultural exports. The effects are also being felt in other export sectors, including minerals and resources.

On the other side of the coin, restrictions on the departure of vessels from China means those importing goods to Australia – and road transport businesses which supply them – are also likely to feel a slowdown.

Improving the resilience of Australia’s supply chains to withstand the effects of natural disasters and international events was clearly identified in the National Freight and Supply Chain Strategy released last year.

It was a theme echoed in the 2020 Infrastructure Priority List released by Infrastructure Australia in February. The updated list placed a renewed emphasis on enhancing the capacity of national infrastructure to cope with disruptive events – whether they be as a result of natural disasters or through other unexpected events such, as global epidemics or terrorism.

The early part of 2020 was a powerful demonstration of why our governments must join with industry in acting more urgently to address that challenge.

Thales ensuring capability and safety

Thales is committed to the continued delivery of capability to our customers while minimising any risk to the safety of our employees and the broader community.

In early March, Thales implemented social distancing and enhanced hygiene measures across all of our sites. At production facilities a number of measures were implemented including: staggered shifts, staggered breaks, closure of canteen facilities, expanded break rooms, increased hand washing and the cleaning of rooms between use. Concurrently all non-production staff moved to ‘work from home’. All sites have also identified and secured a bio-cleaning company for deep cleaning as necessary.

We are closely monitoring impacts on our supply chain, actively seeking advice from key suppliers to ensure we have the ability to mitigate any potential impacts. Thales takes seriously our responsibility to maintain employment and supply chains through the current crisis and have taken a number of steps to assist our partners as the situation has evolved.

Notice to proceed issued for HS2

The UK government has issued a ‘notice to proceed’ for companies to begin work on High Speed 2 (HS2).

The decision ensures that construction will go ahead on the controversial project, and confirms that work will progress while the country grapples with the coronavirus (COVID-19) and associated lockdown measures.

The ‘notice to proceed’ is the formal approval for the construction of stage one of the project, from London to the West Midlands. This stage project is split into four work packages awarded to four separate joint ventures. Awarded in 2017, the joint ventures are:

  • SCS Railways (Skanska Construction UK Ltd, Costain Ltd, STRABAG AG);
  • Align JV (Bouygues Travaux Publics SAS, a subsidiary of Bouygues Construction, Sir Robert McAlpine and VolkerFitzpatrick, a subsidiary of VolkerWessels UK);
  • EKBF JV (Eiffage Genie Civil SA, Kier Infrastructure and Overseas Ltd, BAM Nuttall, Ferrovial Agroman); and
  • BBV JV (Balfour Beatty Group Ltd, VINCI Construction Grands Projets, VINCI Construction UK Ltd, VINCI Construction Terrassement).

HS2 Minister, Andrew Stephenson, said that the decision is an assurance to the rail industry.

“Following the decision earlier this year to proceed with the project, this next step provides thousands of construction workers and businesses across the country with certainty at a time when they need it, and means that work can truly begin on delivering this transformational project.”

HS2 Ltd, the public company overseeing HS2, estimates that 400,000 supply chain contracts will be created in phase one of HS2.

“In these difficult times, today’s announcement represents both an immediate boost to the construction industry – and the many millions of UK jobs that the industry supports – and an important investment in Britain’s future: levelling up the country, improving our transport network and changing the way we travel to help bring down carbon emissions and improve air quality for the next generation,” said Mark Thurston, CEO of HS2 Ltd.

The UK government has also published the full business case for the project.

Operators meeting strengthening demand for rail freight

Figures released by Aurizon show that there has been greater demand for rail freight services in the March quarter of 2020.

The Queensland based business, which operates the Central Queensland Coal Network, as well as coal services in NSW and South East Queensland and national freight services, saw a 2 per cent increase in total above rail volumes when compared to the 2019 March quarter.

The growth was driven by a 12 per cent increase in bulk volumes, however coal volumes remained flat.

In an ASX statement, the company attributed the growth to strong volumes of iron ore from Mt Gibson, in the Kimberly and Mid West of Western Australia. However, the overall level of growth in the bulk sector was affected by the flooding of the Mt Isa line in the March quarter last year, which restricted volumes in that period.

The flat demand for coal volumes were affected by the ramp down of New Acland mine, industrial action and adverse weather in February and march which impacted the Centre Queensland Coal Network.

Aurizon also noted that there has been greater demand for freight rail services from Linfox due to increased demand for consumer goods during the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic. Aurizon has put in place extra preventative measures and there have been no cases of COVID-19 among Aurizon employees.

Linfox has been redeploying some of its workforce from affected operations to manage this demand for grocery products and the company is ensuring that supply chains remain open, said Linfox Logistics CEO Australia and New Zealand, Mark Mazurek.

“It is critically important that Linfox’s warehousing, road and rail networks continue to function safely and efficiently and that we can work collaboratively to deploy our people into new roles.”

International bodies urge continuity in public transport

An international group of transport organisations have issued a statement urging that public transport services must run despite coronavirus (COVID-19) mitigation measures.

The group includes the International Association of Public Transport (UITP), the International Union of Railways (UIC), United Cities and Local Governments, and the International Transport Workers Federation.

In the statement, the group calls for continuity in public transport, particularly so that key workers can keep getting to and from work.

“Ensuring continuity of public transport and local mobility services is essential for society and the economy. This will ensure that the health crisis does not turn into a social one.”

The statement identifies measures that need to be taken to ensure that services continue, including the provision and supply of protective equipment for transport staff and operators. This will ensure the health and safety of staff and passengers.

The statement notes that in some cities, patronage has dropped by 90 per cent, and this can have a devastating impact on operators which rely on passenger revenues.

The authors call upon governments to rapidly adopt measures including financial support which supports the preservation of jobs and the industries which supply the transport networks.

Some best practice measures outlined in the statement include providing accurate and up to date information, conduct regular deep cleaning and disinfection, adapting service levels to passenger demand while ensuring continuity, and providing dedicated services for healthcare personnel. The implementation of these measures is of benefit not only to the networks themselves, write the authors.

“Bearing in mind that passenger transport systems are vital to the regular functioning of the economy, these measures would not just support the sector in question but the whole of society.”

Increase in freight services to meet consumer demand

Pacific National has increased key interstate freight services by up to 15 per cent to meet consumer demand.

According to Pacific National CEO, Dean Dalla Valle, extra services have between all mainland state capitals.

“For example, in terms of goods trains operating back and forth across the Nullarbor between Melbourne and Perth, we have lifted the number of services by 15 per cent in the last two weeks,” he said.

“Similarly, to meet customer requirements, Pacific National had increased rail freight services between Melbourne and Brisbane by 8 per cent.”

Pacific National has also been looking to streamline operations due to the unpredictability of current conditions.

“A zeal for constant innovation and a laser-focus on customer needs, both in frontline operations and the corporate centre, is vital,” said Dalla Valle.

“In these rapidly changing times, management and frontline staff must explore every operational and commercial angle to maintain an edge in the marketplace.”

To accommodate the increase in services, operating hours at freight terminals have been extended, consolidated assembly and staging of goods trains at Port Augusta, in South Australia.

“Port Augusta is at a key crossroad in the national supply chain, acting as an ideal launch pad location to provide high capacity rail freight services to every corner of the continent.”

Each of the 40 rail services that Pacific National have been operating back and forth across the Nullarbor have ensured that Western Australia remains connected to the rest of the nation, with 60 per cent of goods arriving in the state carried by rail.

Rail freight services have been particularly key during the coronavirus (COVID-19) lockdown as they operate on separate corridors, reducing the potential for contagion.

“The health and safety of our train crews are paramount, and I’m immensely proud of their ongoing efforts and dedication,” said Dalla Valle, who noted that hygiene and social distancing procedures are strictly adhered to.

Increased appetite for air to rail switch

If concerns around climate change were not enough, modelling by Swiss bank UBS is showing that more people will be looking to switch from air to train travel in Europe following the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic.

The report, released by UBS Evidence Lab, highlights that a number of air routes within the EU are at risk of losing passengers to rail. Those most at risk include routes from Berlin to Frankfurt and Munich, London to Paris and Edinburgh, and Madrid to Barcelona.

While most of the routes most affected are relatively short, the report notes that travellers are having an increasingly higher tolerance to longer rail journeys, which could be taken faster by plane in the same corridor.

“Data from a UBS Evidence Lab survey of 1,000 people in four European countries and China suggests leisure travellers would tolerate 5-6 hours on a train, and EU business travellers up to four hours vs the general consensus of 2-3 hours.”

The report notes that service and frequency are drivers for demand for longer train journeys, and that competition among operators can often encourage improvements in these areas.

The report links the growing appetite for rail to current concerns about COVID-19, as well as wider demands for net-zero carbon by 2050.

“The Covid-19 outbreak is showing industrialised countries not only what clean air means and how to cope without travelling, but also how a cleaner environment and healthier populations cope better with diseases.”

While the report authors note that some low-carbon investments may be diverted to support the transport and travel industries, countries will continue to push towards net zero by 2050, while consumers will continue to look for travel options that take the least time. Increased funding to meet these twin demands will grow the market for European high-speed rail and associated supplies of rollingstock, signalling, controls, and brakes.

Source : UBS Evidence Lab

Rail R U OK?Day updated with COVID-19 resources

The importance of looking out for friends, colleagues, and mates in the rail industry has only been further highlighted this year with the impact of the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic.

As routines are upended and social distancing is adhered to, loneliness and isolation can be further compounded, while obligations to look out for family members, partners and, friends outside of work can increase.

With these factors in mind, the TrackSAFE Foundation has reaffirmed that Rail R U OK?Day will continue as scheduled on Thursday, April 30. In addition, TrackSAFE has released additional materials relevant to the current working environment.

Resources that TrackSAFE have collated include updates to the RailRes App, as well as support and counselling services provided by Lifeline, Beyond Blue, and the National Mental Health Commission.

Additionally, R U OK? CEO, Katherine Newton has released a special message to encourage people to stay connected and give practical tips to stay in contact despite physical distancing laws. This messages has been supplemented by Connection Cards, which can be distributed without contact.

Materials to encourage electronic communication and online events have also been uploaded to the TrackSAFE website.

Ahead of this year’s Rail R U OK?Day organisations and participants can draw on the five years of successful R U OK?Days since 2015, with 55,000 rail employees participating in 2019. Over 70 rail companies are registered for the initiative and 105 Champions will facilitate the day.

This year, the two interactive question marks, Quentin and Quinn, departed from Canberra, with Major Projects Canberra, Canberra Metre Operations and Transport Canberra and City Services hosting the beginning of the seven week journey. This year was the first time that organisations in Canberra had participated in the Rail R U OK?Day.

Rail the backbone of reliable international freight

Although the coronavirus (COVID-19) has caused major disruptions to international supply chains, not all freight and logistics networks have been affected equally.

As countries around the globe have closed their borders to air freight, due to the restrictions on passenger flights which carry most airborne cargo, shipments via rail have continued unabated, including long haul routes from China to Europe. Additionally, seaborne freight has been first hit by shutdowns in China and now by lockdowns in the US and Europe, causing freight liners with large capacities to cut back services.

Into this situation has come rail freight, which within Europe has bypassed kilometres long lines of trucks stops at internal borders, and has picked up the slack left by ocean-going lines being reduced. In mid-March, DHL announced that while routes via air were uncertain and blank sailings (cancelled ship cargo services), rail freight continued as normal.

“All DHL Global Forwarding Rail services, including FCL and LCL service from China to Europe (Westbound) and Europe to China (Eastbound), continue normal operations,” the company announced on March 10.

More recently, Finnish logistics operator, Nurminen Logistics has announced the schedules of its Helsinki, Finland to Hefei, China service. Senior vice president sales, Mikko Järvinen, said that flexibility is key.

“Everyone has had to improvise with these disturbances in international logistics. One of the tools we have had for our customers has been the fast cargo train service,” he said.

With the demand for essential medical supplies more critical than ever, and with China manufacturing many of these goods, a reliable shipping option has needed to be found, and in this case, that has been rail.

According to Chinese media agency Xinhua, the first quarter of 2020 saw a 15 per cent increase in freight rail trips between China and Europe, and an 18 per cent increase in freight units. From March 21 until the beginning of April, China had sent 333,800 pieces of epidemic control supplies via rail to Italy, Spain and other European nations.

Within Europe, logistics operators were hit hard by border closures within the Schengen zone. Which in one case at the border between Germany and Poland led to a line of trucks stretching for 50 kilometres. In the Czech Republic, the border into Slovakia is clogged with 30 kilometres of trucks. Rail, however, is continuing across borders without any stops with Austrian operator Rail Cargo Group announcing on March 24 that all freight trains are running on schedule without any restrictions.

Furthermore, rail has also proven its flexibility. In one instance, an urgent shipment of pasta from Italy to Germany was hauled by rail at short notice. DB Schenker transported 400,000 packages of pasta, over 200 tonnes, for retailer Aldi.

“The current Coronavirus pandemic emphasises the importance of reliable supply chains. Logistics keeps the world running, as demonstrated by our solution for ALDI to transport pasta from Italy to Germany on short notice,” said Christian Drenthen, board member for land transport at DB Schenker.

Freight networks ensuring safe operations continue

Freight operators and network owners around Australia continue to serve businesses and communities, and Tasmania is no exception.

CEO of government-owned TasRail, Steven Dietrich, reminded Tasmanians this morning that the state’s freight rail owner and operator is continuing to provide rail-based freight services across the 611 kilometres of operational network.

In the statement, Dietrich noted that like other operators, hygiene and cleaning practices have been stepped up in response to the coronavirus (COVID-19).

“To keep our teams healthy we have been working hard to implement best-practice hygiene and physical distancing measures at our sites around the state, protecting essential frontline staff, and coordinating working from home and split-shift operations where possible.”

As federal and state transport ministers have reaffirmed that rail freight is an essential service, Dietrich reminded the community that trains will be continuing to operate and that people should remain safe around the rail corridor, which includes over 500 level crossings around the state.

“Working together we will keep the critical freight services operating and continue to provide Tasmanians with the goods they require access to at this time.”

In a written statement, CEO and managing director of the Australian Rail Track Corporation John Fullerton also noted that rail freight would continue, and the network owner would be providing a safe network and progressing major projects in NSW, Victoria, and South Australia, as well as the Inland Rail project.

“While it is positive the freight and logistics industry and the works supporting these sectors have been recognised as essential services, we also recognise that in our continued operations we have a significant responsibility to the ongoing health and safety of our people as well as the communities in which we operate. This includes a range of preventative actions to minimise risk, adjustments to existing work practices and to actively plan for the health and people effects of COVID-19,” wrote Fullerton.

Many ARTC staff are working from home and those on-site are following guidance and social distancing and hygiene. Additionally, travel is being limited, and work is being carried out by locally based employees and contractors.

Fullerton highlighted that demand for predictable and reliable freight deliveries is critical.

“The ARTC team remains committed to ensuring that the rail network is managed and maintained safely, and the major projects the economy needs are delivered successfully. That remains our focus and commitment to our customers, stakeholders and the community,’ wrote Fullerton.