Freight continues as borders shut

With states closing their borders to interstate travel, those needing to continue to travel, including rail freight operators, into Western Australia and the Northern Territory are being asked to complete an arrival form.

The respective forms for WA and the NT can be found here and here.

From today, March 25, Queensland has also closed its borders. This has affected passenger rail services from NSW, which are now terminating at Casino, rather than continuing to Brisbane.

Due to the extensive connections between Queensland and New South Wales along the border at Tweed Heads/Coolangatta, local movements for shopping, work, medical appointments and travel home are not affected.

In addition, to limit the spread of the virus train and tram services in South East Queensland are only accepting pre-paid tickets to avoid the handling of cash.

While these measures have been put in place to ensure community safety, the Australian Logistics Council (ALC) has continued to press for freight services to be allowed to continue unaffected, due to their critical nature delivering food and supplies around Australia.

CEO of the ALC, Kirk Coningham, has said that he is happy with the measures put in place so far.

“It is pleasing that states and territories have all recognised the essential nature of the freight task by exempting freight and logistics from border closure arrangements,” he said.

“We now need states and territories to ensure that exemption is given practical effect, and make certain freight vehicles are not delayed for lengthy periods at border check points.”

Freight operators have been putting in place extra social distancing measures and cleaning measures to ensure that freight vehicle operators cannot spread COVID-19. With this in mind, delays at borders should be minimised, said Coningham.

“Those operating freight vehicles have rigorous restrictions around the number of hours they can work. Significant delays at border check points could end up producing delays of 24-hours or more in the movement of freight,” he said.

Industry seeks clarity on status of rail freight

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.”

Transport agencies respond to COVID-19 shutdown

On Sunday, March 22, NSW and Victoria announced shutdowns of non-essential services from midday, Monday, March 23.

While both states have continued to determine that public transport is an essential service, Victoria has introduced extra guidelines to keep passengers and rail workers safe from coronavirus (COVID-19).

The Victorian government has encouraged commuters to stagger the times that they need to use public transport. With the recommended distance of four square metres per person in indoor gatherings often difficult to achieve on public transport, even with reduced patronage numbers, travelling outside of peak times could be safer.

On top of measures announced last week, extra cleaning will be carried out on Victorian public transport, including trains and trams. Similarly, in Auckland personal hand sanitisers have been given to frontline staff, and new public hand sanitiser stands have been installed. Health advice has been displayed on services and in stations and stops.

Transport for NSW reiterated the advice it has given to passengers and staff to limit the spread of COVID-19.

Operators are encouraging passengers to use cashless payments, including the myki and AT HOP cards. Auckland Transport will not be accepting cash fares on buses from Monday, March 23.

Outside of the major cities, the Australian and New Zealand governments have prohibited non-essential travel. This has led to operators suspending some interstate and regional passenger services.

In Australia, The Overland, The Ghan, and the Indian Pacific have been cancelled until May 31 after Western Australia and the Northern Territory closed their borders to non essential travel. South Australia has also restricted border crossings. This closure does not apply to freight rail.

In New Zealand, KiwiRail has suspended three tourist trains, until further notice, said chief executive Greg Miller.

“Tomorrow’s TranzAlpine, Northern Explorer and Coastal Pacific trains have been cancelled and the services will remain suspended until further notice,” he said. The Capital Connection service will continue.

Miller said that safety of staff, customers, and communities was the priority.

V/Line has advised that passengers using regional services should reconsider if their journeys are essential. Café bar services on V/Line trains will not be available.

A Transport for NSW spokesperson said that regional and urban trains will continue as normal.

“We understand the important role public transport plays in the daily lives of our commuters, especially in the regions, and there is currently no plan to reduce services of trains or buses across our network.”

Rail operators are ramping up hygiene to combat COVID-19 transmission

Major Australian rail operators are helping authorities minimise the spread of COVID-19 by seriously ramping up hygiene and cleaning protocols.

Current advice from the Australian Department of Health is that everyone in the community should go about their business as usual, unless they have travelled from a country or region with a high or moderate risk of COVID-19, or have had contact with a confirmed case of coronavirus. There is no need to take actions like limiting movement on public transport.

State government agencies including Transport for NSW (TfNSW), Queensland Rail, Victoria Department of Transport (DoT), Transport Canberra, South Australian Public Transport Authority (SAPTA), Western Australia Public Transport Authority (PTA) are advising rail operators around the nation to take extra precautions and maintain good hygiene practices for both employees and passengers.

On Tuesday, March 17 the NSW government announced that part of the $2.3 billion economic stimulus, $250 million will be invested to employ additional cleaners of public infrastructure, which includes TfNSW’s external operators statewide.

Cleaning squads have been deployed across NSW trains, light rail, and the metro, particularly in high-traffic areas including Central, Town Hall, and Wynard.

TfNSW is encouraging customers to use Opal and contactless payments where possible, to further reduce chances of community spread and safeguard staff.

Andrew Constance, NSW Minister for Transport said while staff have boosted maintenance and cleaning efforts on the network in response to COVID-19, customers need to take extra precautions too.

“For those services that do not offer contactless payment, we are advising all frontline staff to wash their hands and use hand sanitiser to limit the spread of viruses,” he said.

Jeroen Weimar, head of transport services Victoria said we’ve all got a part to play in responding to the significant challenge presented by COVID-19.

A Victorian DoT spokesperson said all operators on the state’s network have been asked to activate their increased cleaning protocols which will be rolled out in the coming days.

The increased cleaning measures mean all carriages on Metro Trains and V/Line trains will undergo nightly sanitation, and Melbourne’s trams will undergo a deep clean before each service.

A TransLink spokesperson said it  is working behind the scenes in preparation and have plans in place to respond to any recommendations from Queensland Health.

Gold Coast trams have already moved to daily sanitised cleans, and Queensland Rail will boost dedicated cleaning staff, ramping up regular cleaning measures and beginning a new disinfecting process on South East Queensland commuter trains from Tuesday, March 17.

Queensland Rail has stated in an update that it has strict maintenance and cleanliness standards for its trains and stations to ensure the comfort and safety of customers and employees. 

SAPTA has also increased cleaning schedules and extra crew are being used across all modes with particular focus being given to hard surfaces such as handrails, validators and push buttons. 

Stephan Knoll, SA Minister for Transport and Infrastructure said the safety of passengers and staff remains the highest priority. 

“We are taking these additional measures to help protect South Australians who deliver and rely on public transport to get to work or go about their daily lives,” said Knoll. 

Transport Canberra said there have been no changes made to public transport, and all governments are working together to ensure a national approach.

“We are implementing an increased cleaning regime on our light rail vehicles as well as at high-traffic areas such as stops and interchanges,” Transport Canberra stated.

Chris Steel, ACT Minister for Transport said the state government has engaged Robson Environmental to undertake a study to make any further recommendations on Transport Canberra’s cleaning practices.

Rita Saffioti, WA Transport Minister said along with other state transport agencies, Transperth trains have transitioned from getting a basic daily clean each night to a full daily sanitation.

“So far there is no evidence of community transmission in WA, and the increased cleaning regime is intended to reduce the risk – as much as practical – against potential exposure,” Saffioti said.

Across the Tasman in New Zealand, Auckland Transport have been quick to adopt similar health and safety initiatives to those that have been put in place by Australian transport operators.

Auckland Transport (AT) advised in a statement that the NZ Ministry of Health has made it clear that there are no issues with people using trains.

“While many Aucklanders are working from home during this time of uncertainty, those continuing to use public transport should use good hygiene practices,” Auckland Transport stated.

Phil Goff, Auckland Mayor, said AT is well-prepared for a possible escalation of its COVID-19 response and has taken steps including installing new public hand sanitiser stations and has increased the cleaning of vehicles and facilities.

Shane Ellison, Auckland Transport chief executive, said AT are making sure information and advice from the NZ Ministry of Health on preventive measures is being supplied to its staff, operators, and contractors.

AT have created a COVID-19 update section on its website, as have most rail operators and state transport departments in Australia, to inform staff and passengers with the latest information.

Aurizon’s revenue rises to $1.53bn

Aurizon Holdings Limited revenue has increased by $73.4 million or five per cent in the 2019/20 first-half earnings before interest and tax.

Australia’s largest rail-based transport business has released a half year report for the period ending 31 December 2019, detailing new growth in the company.

Aurizon stated in the report that the higher revenue is offset by the sale of the rail grinding business.

A spokeswoman from Aurizon said the large sale transaction for the rail grinding business was completed with Loram in October 2019 for $167m with $105m net gain on sale (not included in underlying earnings).

With revenue up five per cent to a total of $1.53 billion, the company’s underlying net profit rose 19 per cent to $268.9m.

The group credited the UT5 Undertaking as a factor that improved revenue. In December last year, Queensland Competition Authority (QCA) approved the agreement that governs access to its rail network. 

Aurizon executives stated that the company’s financial position and performance was partially affected by the closure and sale of Acacia Ridge Intermodal Terminal. 

Two years ago the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) opposed the sale of Acacia Ridge Intermodal Terminal and commenced proceedings against Aurizon and Pacific National in the Federal Court. Aurizon and the proposed new owner of the terminal, Pacific National, both filed notices of cross-appeal that will be heard by the full Federal Court later in February. 

Aurizon executives highlighted its full-year earning guidance to $930 million from $880 million. This figure was noted before assumed impacts from the Australian bushfires and the world health emergency, coronavirus.

The coronavirus has delayed the arrival of 66 rail wagons being made in the epicentre of the disease, Wuhan in China. 

A spokeswoman from Aurizon said an initial order of 66 wagons have already been delivered and the remaining 66 wagons are planned for delivery in February or March.

The first batch of 132 coal wagons have been completed by our supplier. The construction of the second tranche of 132 wagons has been delayed due to a slow down of production in China,” the spokeswoman said.

Operating costs increased $13.9m or 2 per cent, which were identified as due to to increased labour costs.

Aurizon’s network operates the 2,670km CQCN, the largest coal rail network in Australia. 

Aurizon executives stated in the 2019/20 half year report that 58 per cent of the company’s revenue, a total of $887.5m, was from transporting coal from mines in Queensland and NSW to customer ports.

Operational performance across the network  “remained strong” during the first half of the new financial year, according to Aurizon.

Total system availability improved from 81 per cent to 82.2 per cent, and cycle velocity improved 4 per cent.

Aurizon’s executives said the focus has been on the trial and implementation of schedule adherence in the Blackwater system in QLD.

Compared to the previous half, the network delivered an average reduction in turnaround time of 1.2 hours per service and both on-time arrival to mine and to port increased.

Aurizon’s executives said the network is now working with operators to improve the current scheduling process by realigning maintenance constraints to unlock capacity and optimising the weekly Intermediate Train Plan to avoid pathing contests between operators. The report stated that system throughput is expected to increase, in the third quarter of this year.