Peak industry bodies across the infrastructure sector are implementing measures to ensure vital passenger and freight services continue to operate throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, and new support has been established to support regional commuters and businesses.
In NSW, the state worst-affected by the virus, Transport for NSW has taken steps to ensure vital services continue to support customers and staff, including essential health and emergency services.
The industry body is operating with the understanding of the critical role all modes of transport are playing as NSW deals with the Coronavirus outbreak.
Transport for NSW Secretary, Rodd Staples, said the agency was committed to maintaining these services during the outbreak.
“It is clearly not business as usual at the moment but we know our network remains a critical part in keeping essential services running,” Mr Staples said.
“While we support government advice to avoid non-essential travel, it is clear we must ensure our network remains safe and viable for the efforts going into containing Coronavirus.
“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.”
Transport for NSW has increased cleaning right across the network and ramped up public messaging about personal hygiene.
In the second two weeks of March 2020, NSW has seen declines and shifts in travel patterns across all modes of transport.
Mr Staples said there has been a state-wide decline in public transport of around 40-45 per cent during these weeks.
“It is no surprise to anyone that customer numbers are down across our trains, buses, ferries and light rail due to the Coronavirus outbreak, however importantly this has created sufficient space on all modes to allow our customers to socially distance themselves in the majority of cases,” Mr Staples said.
“It is clear our customers are following the important advice from the Government to stay at home if you are feeling sick and to avoid non-essential travel.
“We are also placing a great deal of effort to ensure our frontline workers are being supported and are as safe as possible. I am proud of the work they are doing.”
Transport for NSW Coronavirus Taskforce Director, Mark Hutchings, said his team was proactively addressing issues as they occur across the network while coordinating with the whole of Government response.
“The Taskforce is putting customer and staff safety at the forefront of its decision making. We are receiving the most up to date real time information from health and operational professionals,” Mr Hutchings said.
Mr Staples added additional measures have been implemented to ensure the safety of our customers and staff travelling on our network across long distances, particularly regionally.
“This week, NSW TrainLink regional rail and coach customers will be booked in a way to maximise social-distancing where possible,” Mr Staples said.
“As this outbreak evolves, we are making a concerted effort to keep our regional services running and safe for those communities.”
Freight sector ramps up efforts to meet demand
The pandemic has created an unprecedented challenge for Australia’s rail freight sector, but industry continues to meet the demands from their customers, suppliers and business partners.
Rail freight operators are looking closely at the national supply chain to identify opportunities to ensure more efficient and productive delivery of rail freight.
CEO of the Australasian Railway Association, Caroline Wilkie, said the possibility of using metropolitan passenger networks to deliver freight was being seriously considered.
“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,” Ms Wilkie said.
“This could include modifications to current curfews to increase frequency and availability of freight services.”
Ms Wilkie said that improved rail freight productivity would also help provide resilience in the face of emergencies.
“Productive supply chains are what help keep the country running. Investment in rail freight and reforms to prescriptive and onerous legislative requirements help build a productive supply chain.”
ARA is holding regular meetings with freight and passenger rail operators as well as those ports, contractors, suppliers, consultants and manufacturers in the rail supply chain.
Each year, more than 450 billion tonne kilometres of freight is moved by rail. This volume is expected to grow by more than 35 per cent by 2040.
Ms Wilkie said rail freight operators continued to support their suppliers and partners during the economic upheaval, but needed confirmation from State and Federal Governments that they are an ‘essential service’.
“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,” Ms Wilkie said.
“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.”
Ms Wilkie said ARA members were 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.
“Freight rail operators are working overtime to respond to freight demand both safely and responsibly. Self-isolation and social distancing protocols are being implemented, as well as modified rostering to keep employees out of harm’s way,” she said.
Additional hygiene controls and cleaning arrangements have also been adopted, which has put a strain on the availability of hand sanitisers and detergents. Many ARA members have reported difficulties in obtaining an adequate supply of these essentials for their employees.
Emergency funds to support regional Australian businesses
The Federal Government has announced it will inject an initial $1 billion into regional communities to support businesses, agriculture and tourism impacted by COVID-19.
On 22 March 2020, the Federal Government announced an extra $66.1 billion in stimulus measures, bringing its total economic support package to $189 billion.
Federal Minister for Infrastructure, Transport and Regional Development, Michael McCormack, said many small and medium businesses were the core of regional communities.
“The $1 billion will support regions, communities and industry sectors which have been disproportionately affected by the economic impacts of COVID-19 such as tourism, agriculture and education,” Mr McCormack said.
“Agriculture is the lifeblood of this nation and it is already on its knees following a prolonged drought, bushfires and floods.”
Mr McCormack said that many rural, remote and regional communities rely on tourism to support their local economy and in these extreme circumstances, this crisis could be debilitating.
“Our funding will ensure we provide the right support so industries and businesses keep going and employees can keep their jobs which includes the more than 3 million small and medium businesses as well as casuals, sole traders, retirees and those on income support,” he said.
The economic stimulus package also supports $14.1 billion over the forward estimates for those doing it tough across Australia under a new income support payment, Coronavirus supplement, to be paid at a rate of $550 per fortnight.
This payment will be eligible to both existing and new recipients of the JobSeeker Payment, Youth Allowance JobSeeker, Parenting Payment, Farm Household Allowance and Special Benefit and will be paid on top of existing payment each fortnight.
In addition to the $750 stimulus payment already announced, the Federal Government will provide a further $750 payment to social security and veteran income support recipients and eligible concession cardholders, except those who are receiving an income support payment that is eligible to receive the Coronavirus supplement.
“These measures are part of the Government’s plan to help prevent people from losing their jobs and keep businesses operational,” Mr McCormack said.
“Whilst there are still few confirmed cases in regional Australia, we all have a role to play in slowing the spread of this virus including heeding the advice from health authorities, practising good hygiene, social distancing and self-isolation where appropriate.
“Australia is a resilient nation, no more so than in regional areas, where many are still feeling the effects of drought, bushfires and floods and this will have a further impact on their recovery but we will get through the other side of this crisis.”