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 asset owners are adjusting services to keep commuters as safe as possible.
The Coronavirus 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 rail freight operators are looking closely at the national supply chain to identify opportunities to ensure more efficient and productive delivery of rail freight.
“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.
Passenger rail services temporarily reduced
Passenger rail services around Australia are changing to protect the safety of commuters and the wider community by trying to avoid spreading of the virus as much as possible.
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.”
In Queensland, long haul train and coach services have been temporarily reduced as part of wider efforts to contain the virus.
Queensland Transport and Main Roads Minister, Mark Bailey, said rural and regional communities would continue to have access to transport for essential travel under the changes.
“Right now, people should not be travelling on coaches or trains across Queensland unless they have an essential reason to,” Mr Bailey said.
“Essential reasons are things like getting to work or to a medical appointment.
“The Queensland border is now closed and we’re already seeing drops in patronage of up to 60 per cent on buses and trains as people stay home.
“People will still have access to long distance passenger services for essential reasons on all key corridors, but the frequency of those services will be reduced, and we’ll manage passenger numbers on board to separate passengers from each other.”
Public transport services in Western Australia will also be scaled down temporarily due to COVID-19 for a period of three weeks from April 6.
While the reduced service arrangements are initially in place for a period of three weeks, the State Government will monitor the latest health advice and patronage levels to review whether it needs to be extended.
Adjusted levels of service aim to strike a balance between providing an essential service and minimising costs to the taxpayer while demand for public transport is low.
To ensure social distancing on public transport is not compromised, the PTA will closely monitor patronage and services to add in additional services if required.
WA, Transport Minister Rita Saffioti, said, “Public transport is a vital service that we will continue to provide throughout the pandemic to ensure essential workers can get on with their jobs.
“COVID-19 has had a big impact on patronage and this temporary adjustment in services is in response to that drop in demand.
“We will be closely monitoring the pandemic situation to ensure those who rely on public transport to get to their workplaces – to perform jobs which are often essential to the State – can continue to do so.”
ARTC rolls out changes across its network, but continues vital works
The Australian Rail Track Corporation (ARTC) is implementing a range of measures to ensure the safe and reliable running of its various networks, whilst also protecting the safety of its commuters and the reliability of freight movement.
ARTC Group Executive Hunter Valley, Wayne Johnson, said that the freight and transport industry’s designation as an essential service by the State and Federal Government was a responsibility the ARTC would take very seriously.
“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,” Mr Johnson said.
The Hunter Valley rail network plays a vital role in the transport and supply chain – and in supporting the Hunter, NSW and Australian economies. Around half of the trains on the rail network are passenger services, and ARTC also manages the safe transit of valuable export commodities like coal, grain and other products.
The transport of regional freight and interstate goods trains are also served by 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.”
Delivering a safe and reliable rail network means undertaking critical maintenance work will be required. ARTC has significantly scaled-back its previously planned maintenance shutdown of the Hunter Valley rail network on the week of 30 March, with a focus on delivering works essential to ensuring the rail network’s safety and reliability for the community and freight supply that relies on the network’s operation.
The ARTC has taken the decision to carry out the critical work after a thorough assessment considering safety, reliability and impacts to safety.
“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.”
ARTC will be taking a range of additional measures for upcoming work noting current COVID-19 health concerns, including:
- Limiting workers to be those employees and contractors based in the Hunter Valley rather than the typical ‘surge’ workforce that can come from intra and interstate. This scales back the workforce by more than 500 people
- Ensuring teams carry out their work in smaller groups and in separate locations across the network
- De-scaling the total scope of works to focus on essential reliability focused tasks only
- ARTC will also continue to ensure all our staff practice social distancing, minimise interactions with the broader community, conduct communications and briefings with 4m2 and regular health and hygiene check-ups
Mr Johnson said the measures in place are being assessed daily and the type of work being undertaken still requires a shutdown of the network to be carried out as safely as possible.
“The COVID-19 pandemic is an incredibly challenging set of circumstances for us all and it’s clear that this period of uncertainty is going to remain for some time.
“We thank our customers, the community, commuters, and motorists across the network for their understanding of the need to carry out this critical maintenance activity to assure the integrity of the network for coming weeks,” he said.
“We remind residents to remain vigilant as there may be more vehicle movements in and out of work sites in areas around the work sites and the rail corridor.”
Similarly, in Victoria, the organisation is working on measures to ensure the continued safe and reliable running of the North East Rail Line network.
ARTC’s General Manager Projects Victoria, Ed Walker, said ARTC was carefully balancing the important work on the North East Rail Line upgrade with the need to ensure ongoing freight and passenger rail operations alongside the health and welfare of our people and the communities in which it operates.
“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,” Mr Walker said.
“ARTC and our contract partners are implementing a range of preventative measures to manage the risk around COVID-19,” Mr Walker said.
This includes avoiding non-essential travel, following social distancing advice, implementing a range of hygiene practices and health check-ups, identifying what works can be delivered in smaller groups and enabling those staff that can work from home and remotely.
“We continue to follow advice from the 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,” Mr Walker said.