KiwiRail not the ‘fix it’ answer to freight supply chain snarl up

Frustrated freight chain players caught in the ports congestion snarl shouldn’t look totaxpayer-owned KiwiRail to provide quick answers by the sounds of it.

Bosses at Port of Tauranga, the country’s biggest port, its main export gateway and a big user of rail, are asking “where have all the trains gone?”.

A month ago the port asked for 12 extra trains on the Tauranga-Auckland rail line as it tackles the problem of getting unscheduled import cargoes dropped off by ships avoiding Auckland’s choked port back to Auckland – four have been provided.

This time last year the port was serviced by 92 trains per week. Earlier this month that had reduced to 78.

In response to Herald questions, KiwiRail chief operating officer Todd Moyle said, in a written statement, the state-owned enterprise “continues to work with Port of Tauranga to provide additional services to deal with the peak import volumes that are currently being experienced”.

“In addition, we are providing services to other customers to relocate empty containers and full export containers to the port. All capacity that can be made available is being deployed on this route.

“The 92-train programme was reduced in February this year at the request of the port.”

This was before the Covid-19 pandemic swept the world and uncertainty was rife in the global transport and logistics industry.

Asked where the trains had gone and why they couldn’t be redeployed on the east rail trunk line now, KiwiRail said it was now peak season for KiwiRail.

“We are moving meat and dairy exports, distributing domestic goods around New Zealand and relocating empty containers for exporters to pack. We have made commitments to these markets and they have set up their supply chains around rail. These arrangements cannot be reversed without consequences to these customers.”

KiwiRail’s response to Herald questions held further bad news for frustrated retailers, manufacturers and distributors affected by shipping congestion, lengthy unloading delays and soaring costs at Auckland’s port, the country’s main imports gateway.

Like Maersk, the world’s biggest container shipping line, KiwiRail believed the current freight supply chain challenges would continue until the second quarter of next year.

“Once peak season is over, we will be in a position to run more services if required.

“We have more rolling stock on order, however these are long lead time items which are bespoke to KiwiRail’s needs. Further wagons will be delivered late in 2021 but additional locomotives are two years away.”

NZX-listed Tauranga port is in mid-peak export season while also dealing with imports – many destined for Christmas shop shelves – diverted from Auckland.

The result is congestion in the upper North Island freight supply chain, though other New Zealand ports are also feeling the impact of shipping congestion – attributed to Covid disruption to aviation freight and shipping schedules, and unprecedented demand for imports from pent-up consumer spending after lockdowns and travel restrictions.

Ports of Auckland attributes its particular logjam issues to global Covid-19 shipping disruption, a hangover from previous industrial action at Australian ports and its own shortage of wharf labour.

But many in the freight sector point to the failure of the port to fully implement, after four years, an ambitious wharf automation project. This, sector sources claim, has severely hampered productivity and cost hundreds of millions of dollars. Neither the port company nor the council will disclose the costs of the project.

Meanwhile, Northland’s Northport, which has a small container facility, stepped up to try to help get Christmas goods from China and North Asia in time by accepting its biggest container ship ever. The ship, which arrived in New Zealand two weeks ago, would not have been able to unload at its scheduled Auckland port stop until December 22.

Most of the 1170 boxes from the Constantinos P had to be trucked from south of Whangarei to Auckland because no rail infrastructure was in place.

The Christmas convoy mission – which had been estimated to put 800 extra trucks on that road – went without drama, putting Northport on the radar for more container ship visits if the congestion continues.

KiwiRail, in a written statement in response to Herald inquiries, said the Northland line is currently closed between Swanson and Whangarei while major work replacing bridges, improving tunnels and upgrading the rail line is under way.

“When the line re-opens in January it will provide more reliable train services and enable more freight, including hi-cube containers, to be carried by rail.”

The rail line from Auckland to Whangārei is scheduled to open on January 11, said KiwiRail.

But the project did not include construction of a rail spur line out to Marsden Point, home of Northport.

KiwiRail chief operating officer capital projects and asset development David Gordon said:
“We have been allocated $40 million from the Provincial Growth Fund to begin acquiring land along the designated route of the Marsden Point Line and for the related design work necessary to determine the extent of purchase.

“KiwiRail has not been funded to do any work beyond land acquisition at this time, and there is currently no timeline for the project.”

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