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.

Freight and logistics councils streamline movement of goods

The freight industries in Western Australia and South Australia have each joined together to provide an efficient source of information for freight operators during the coronavirus (COVID-19) crisis.

In WA, the Freight and Logistics Council of WA (FLCWA), along has formed the WA Supply Chain Covid Response Group. The group brings together the FLCWA, Northern Territory Road Transport Association, and Western Roads Federation to ensure the safety of workers and the continuing supply of essential goods.

Leading the group will be Nicole Lockwood, chair of FLCWA, and the combined group will provide a single source of information to the WA and Northern Territory governments and agencies on behalf of the freight and logistics industries.

“We’re here to help any freight company who requires assistance in dealing with operational impacts due to Covid-19 and encourage them to get in contact with us,” said Lockwood.

Since its formation two weeks ago, the response group has been providing advice on the impact of border closures and supported the delivery of products such as hand sanitiser to the freight industry.

“Our key priority is the safety of all workforce involved to maintain the movement of food, medical supplies and general freight. I’d like to acknowledge the dedication from the front-line truck drivers, train drivers and Port workers in ensuring essential goods are kept flowing into Western Australia,” said Lockwood.

WA network operator Arc Infrastructure has been planning for the COVID-19 pandemic since February to ensure that operations continue. Those who can work from home are doing so, and while regional depots and head office remain open, face-to-face meetings are limited unless business critical.

Arc Infrastructure has also implemented new control centres in the metro area, increasing the number of available train controllers, decentralising work locations, and making sure that expertise and qualifications are evenly spread across the network.

In South Australia, Minister for Trade and Investment, David Ridgway, has formed the Export Recovery Taskforce to support South Australian freight businesses overcome the economic effects of COVID-19.

“South Australia has an immense task ahead of us, and the impacts of COVID-19 are being felt across all export sectors. We recognise the enormous economic and logistical issues challenging our industries, businesses and individuals right now as a result of the necessary restrictions on travel,” said Ridgway.

While international air freight has been restricted, ports and ship-borne freight remain operating. According to Evan Knapp, executive officer of the SA Freight Council, while the initial focus is on shipments via air, future discussions could incorporate impacts to goods shipped by rail, for example grain.

“Rail is still moving relatively well at this stage. Grain has been affected by the massive change in value of our currency which will have short term impacts, but in the longer term the currency depreciation will make Australian goods much more attractive in markets around the world.”

Knapp added that the SA Freight Council and others have reiterated to governments that rail workers and rail safety workers are essential workers and must be permitted to cross state borders to make urgent repairs to rail networks, when required.

3D printing expertise called in for fight against COVID-19

The skills and expertise of the rail industry have not only been demonstrated in ensuring that the movement of people and goods is uninhibited during the corona virus (COVID-19) pandemic.

In Barcelona, railcar and signalling manufacturer Alstom has been utilising the knowledge of its industrial prototyping team to build visors for face shields and ventilator valves which are being delivered to hospitals.

The initiative is in partnership with 3Dcovid19.org which has been coordinating additive manufacturing facilities to provide parts for the healthcare sector in Spain.

“3D printing has gained prominence due to its particular usefulness for creating equipment to protect against COVID-19, as it can be used to manufacture materials currently suffering severe shortages such as face masks, mechanical respirators and even door openers, among others,” said Jaume Altesa, who heads Alstom’s 3D printing hub in Santa Perpètua, Barcelona.

“The aim is to help the healthcare community by manufacturing parts that meet appropriate quality and safety standard.”

Due to the rapid modifications enabled by 3D printing, developers and designers that previously produced parts for new trains have pivoted to making in-demand medical supplies.

At the same facilities, computer aided design (CAD) experts are working on portable personal protectors for door handles and incorporating new anti-bacterial materials in masks.

When not working on products to equip front-line health workers, Alstom’s 3D printing division works to make prototypes and 3D printed parts quickly and cost-competitively for new trains and for customers who require spare parts, while also facilitating manufacturing and maintenance operations. The company’s “Industry of the Future” programme is part of the Smart Operations initiative. Internally, 3D printing is used to make tools for factories, prototypes for design validation, rapidly made mould and series parts with roughly 70 references in plastic and metal.

Stimulus a welcome boost for rail industry

Yesterday, federal Treasurer Josh Frydenburg and Prime Minister Scott Morrison announced the $130 billion wage subsidy package.

The announcement goes well beyond previous stimulus packages by giving 6 million workers a flat payment of $1,500 per fortnight, through their employer.

The assistance is available to businesses with a turnover of less than $1 billion and have had a reduction in revenue of 30 per cent or more in a month since March 1, 2020. The expansion of eligibility means that many more companies will have access to these funds than previous measures.

For companies in the rail industry, such funding could be a lifeline to hold onto staff who may have otherwise been let go said Dennis Mah – strategy and commercial development – at Sonaray, which supplies lighting to rail projects.

“We will be taking advantage of all the government packages to retain all staff as long as possible. Luckily our over heads are not that high but when there is no or limited cash flow it hurts the bottom line,” said Mah.

Announcing the measures, Morrison noted that the funds will help businesses survive through the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic.

“This is about keeping the connection between the employer and the employee and keeping people in their jobs even though the business they work for may go into hibernation and close down for six months,” he said.

“When the economy comes back, these businesses will be able to start again and their workforce will be ready to go because they will remain attached to the business through our JobKeeper payment.”

According to Mah, however, there is further room for companies in the rail sector in particular to complete works now that would otherwise not be done.

“This could be the ideal time to access a lot of areas where normally it is restricted due to high pedestrian traffic.”

Now is the time for Team Australia

Not since World War II has Australia’s social and economic way of life been put under such pressure. Businesses are struggling or closing, thousands have already lost their jobs, governments are shutting down all non-essential activities, and millions are working from home.

Australia’s Reserve Bank has slashed interest rates to record lows and governments are spending tens of billions to help stabilise the economy.

Anxiety is gripping the nation, with panic buying of food and household items by nervous consumers.

Now is the time for Team Australia to kick in.

What many Australians may not realise is the army of essential freight and logistic workers toiling day and night to help keep our economy ticking over. They are making sure necessities and raw materials find their way to supermarkets, retail stores, petrol stations, warehouses, steel and flour mills, and manufacturing plants.

As Australia’s largest rail freight company, Pacific National is proud to be doing our part, hauling the nation’s goods and commodities 24 hours a day, 365 days of the year along railways linking key supply chains across our vast continent.

Without goods trains, domestic and imported products like food, clothing, medical and pharmaceutical supplies, cleaning products, fuel, household products, chemicals, electronics, steel, and machinery and parts cannot be efficiently transported to depots and warehouses between cities and regional towns.

A double-stacked 1,800-metre interstate goods train can haul more than 330 shipping containers, thereby helping to free-up hundreds of truck drivers each week to focus on delivering goods and products the remaining ‘last mile’ from warehouses to stores where consumers need shelves restocked.

To put this in perspective, a single shipping container can hold approximately 25,000 toilet paper rolls, 55,000 food cans or 1,500 cases of beer.

Without freight trains, bulk exports like grain, meat, fresh and dry produce, cotton and coal cannot be efficiently hauled to ports, the gateways to global markets.

Paddock to port, pit to port, or manufacturing plant to port – essential rail freight services stretch across state borders, servicing finely-tuned supply chains.

Our company has been providing essential rail freight services since 1855. Back then we were called New South Wales Government Railways.

Today, our 600 locomotives are crewed and serviced by 2,500 men and women right across the nation. Each day and night they clock onto their shifts after practicing strict hygiene and social distancing procedures. Rail freight has the added benefit of operating within railway corridors and depots prohibited to the public.

The health and safety of our train crews are paramount, and I’m immensely proud of their efforts and dedication.

Unless ill or otherwise required by law, these crews continue to run essential freight train services around the clock. Without them, critical supply chains across state borders will break. Largely out of sight, each day they help underpin the productivity and wealth of our nation.

We thank federal and state governments for working closely with our sector during this challenging time. They moved quickly to protect the nation’s supply chains.

So next time you see a big blue and yellow Pacific National locomotive, take comfort knowing there is an army of freight and logistic workers doing their bit for Team Australia.

Dean Dalla Valle
Pacific National CEO

Reliability and safety upgrades underway on Hunter Valley Line

Just as work on upgrades to the North East Line have continued in Victoria, despite the COVID-19 crisis, so too will works on the Hunter Valley Line.

The works will focus on ensuring reliability on the Hunter network, which carries passenger and freight services, said the Australian Rail Track Corporation (ARTC).

“The freight and transport industry has been identified as an essential service by the State and Federal Government – this  is a responsibility the Australian Rail Track Corporation takes very seriously, and we are working hard to ensure we balance the challenge of ensuring the safety and reliability of a critical transport network, alongside our obligations to meet and respond to the current public health challenge,” said the ARTC’s group executive Hunter Valley Wayne Johnson.

Half the services on the line are passenger services from Newcastle to the towns of Dungog and Scone, while the rest is comprised of freight services carrying coal, grain, and other export products. Regional and interstate goods services also use the Hunter rail network.

“It is critical that we continue to meet the need of delivering goods, products and people – but we are acutely aware of balancing the demands of running an extensive rail network, with the health and welfare of our people and the communities in which we operate,” said Johnson.

Although a planned maintenance shutdown was scheduled for the Hunter Valley network this week for major upgrades, the ARTC will instead only deliver essential works during the shutdown to maintain the rail network’s safety and reliability. The ARTC has implemented a number of measures to prevent the spread of coronavirus (COVID-19), and ensure that workers are safe.

“As coronavirus (COVID-19) continues to spread and disrupt people’s daily lives, we  have implemented a range of preventative measures to ensure the safety of our team and the community, while endeavouring to ensure reliable network operations can be sustained for critical freight movements in coming weeks,” said Johnson.

North East Rail Line upgrade continuing

Work is continuing on the upgrade of the North East Rail Line, the ARTC confirmed on Friday, March 27.

While shutdowns of non-essential services to limit the spread of coronavirus (COVID-19) have affected other industries, the construction of rail infrastructure has been deemed an essential service, said  Australian Rail Track Corporation (ARTC) general manager projects Victoria, Ed Walker.

“The freight and transport industry is an essential service– and the North East rail line is a vital transport corridor for interstate freight trains, passenger trains, steel for construction and manufacturing and for regional goods like grain.”

The ARTC has implemented measures to ensure the safety of staff and contractors undertaking the vital upgrades. Workers are practicing social distancing, increasing hygiene and health measures, delivering work in smaller groups, and avoiding non-essential travel.

“We continue to follow advice from Government and monitor and assess the situation daily. The current environment is an uncertain and challenging one for everyone and we certainly recognise the responsibilities we have to the community as we deliver this vital project work and to ensure the safe running of essential freight and passenger train services,” said Walker.

Two weeks ago, sections of the track were shutdown and handed over to contractor John Holland Rail, so that a series of projects could be completed. A similar shutdown will occur from Saturday, April 4.

“Further works will take place next weekend, from Saturday 4 April at 6pm, with bridge and track renewal work taking place at the Old Barnawartha Road, West Wodonga and High Street, Barnawartha level crossings,” said Walker.

The announcement from the ARTC follows assurances given to Rail Express last week that a number of rail infrastructure projects are continuing, including the Level Crossing Removal Project, Metronet works, and Cross River Rail construction.

Joint communiqué affirms indispensability of rail freight

Australia’s largest rail freight operators and infrastructure managers have welcomed statements by Australian governments ensuring that rail freight services continue despite state border closures and shutdowns of non-essential services.

Chair of the the Freight on Rail Group, Dean Dalla Valle highlighted that rail freight services are critical for the supply of domestic and imported goods such as food, medical supplies, cleaning products, and fuel.

“Paddock to port, pit to port, or manufacturing plant to port – essential rail freight services stretch across state borders, servicing finely-tuned supply chains across our continent,” he said.

In collaboration with truck drivers working the ‘last mile’ of supply chains, rail services have hauled significant amounts of items in urgent need during the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic.

“A single-stacked 1,800-metre interstate goods train can haul 260 shipping containers, thereby helping to free-up hundreds of truck drivers each week to focus on delivering goods and products the remaining ‘last mile’ from warehouses to stores where consumers need shelves restocked,” said Dalla Valle.

“To put this in perspective, a single shipping container can hold approximately 25,000 toilet paper rolls, 55,000 food cans or 1,500 cases of beer.”

The move follows a meeting of the Transport and Infrastructure Council, made up of state, territory and federal infrastructure and transport ministers, on Wednesday, March 25, which affirmed that freight movements are an essential service, and will continue to operate despite restrictions on activity around the country.

“We, Australia’s Transport and Infrastructure Ministers, wanted to reassure Australians that supporting freight movements and supply of goods to individuals, businesses and service providers is a high priority for all governments,” wrote the ministers in a joint communique.

While Queensland was the latest state to close its borders, following Western Australia, South Australia, the Northern Territory, and Tasmania, the ministers confirmed that these would not inhibit the efficient movement of freight across Australia.

“All jurisdictions where restrictions are in place have provided exemptions to these measures to ensure Australia’s supply chains are maintained,” wrote the ministers.

“We want to thank all those Australians involved in the freight industry who are serving Australia so diligently despite the challenges we face.”

To ensure that rail freight operators do not become susceptible to COVID-19, additional measures have been put in place, said Dalla Valle.

“In recent weeks, rail freight operators have implemented strict hygiene protocols at depots, terminals and maintenance facilities, including social distancing, to protect the health of essential staff,” he said.

“Rail freight has the added benefit of operating within secure railway corridors and facilities prohibited to members of the general public.”

The Freight on Rail Group is made up of nine rail freight businesses, Pacific National, the Australian Rail Track Corporation (ARTC), Aurizon, Qube, One Rail Australia, SCT Logistics, Arc Infrastructure, WatCo Australia, and Southern Shorthaul Railroad.

Major projects

Infrastructure works an “essential service”

Major infrastructure projects are ensuring the safety of their staff while continuing to progress upgrades and significant works while COVID-19 mitigation measures close down other sectors.

The Cross River Rail Delivery Authority (CRRDA) is adhering government guidelines and advice by implementing new safety measures at its sites.

Segregated work zones, restricted access for non-essential workers, and a ban on non-essential access is enabling the 1,500 people working on the Cross River Rail project to continue.

Major works contractors are strengthening their own health and safety procedures while CRRDA office staff are working from home, or only attending the office when essential tasks cannot be completed remotely.

In Perth, construction on the Metronet project is continuing, business as usual, with no restrictions on works being conducted.

In Victoria, the Corey Hannett, director-general, Major Transport Infrastructure Authority, which delivers projects including the Level Crossing Removal Program, the Metro Tunnel project, and the Regional Rail Revival program, among others, told Rail Express that the Authority is ensuring that construction continues with no impact to projects.

“The construction sector is currently considered an essential service and we are working closely with industry partners, unions, employers and workers to protect both their safety and jobs,” said Hannett.

A safety team of 70 is ensuring workers and sites comply with social distancing requirements.

“Project sites have strict rules in place around social distancing, increased industrial cleaning, provisions of personal protective equipment,” said Hannett.

Additionally, an alliance of construction unions and employers groups have united to ensure that safe practices are adopted to keep construction sites open.

In New Zealand, works have been temporarily suspended on the City Rail Link project, however the delivery team is ensuring that when lockdown measures are lifted, teams can get back to work immediately.

“We are doing everything we can to ensure that we are well placed to come out of the blocks very fast when the restart call is given,” said CRL chief executive Sean Sweeny.