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The rush to refill supermarket shelves after Australia’s coronavirus panic-buying has pushed up interstate rail haulage by as much as 15 per cent, according to the country’s biggest rail freight hauler.
Despite there being little evidence of shortages of food and household goods, panic-buying as the national coronavirus lockdown took effect in March led to shortages of essentials such as toilet paper, soap, pasta and tinned vegetables as shoppers bought in bulk.
In response, supermarkets and shops introduced special shopping hours for vulnerable and older Australians, and slapped limits on the sale of many goods — including alcohol in some cases — to stop the depredations of Australia’s new hoarders.
Since then Australia’s freight industry has been playing catch-up to ensure supermarket shelves are restocked, according to Pacific National boss Dean Dalla Valle, who says the rail hauler has put on additional services across the Nullarbor and up and down the east coast to cope with the unseasonal demand.
More than 60 per cent of goods imported into Western Australia come by rail, according to Mr Dalla Valle, and Pacific National increased its services in the state by 15 per cent in the lead-up to the Easter weekend, with fresh fruit and vegetables from WA market gardens making up much of the return trade. Mr Dalla Valle said demand coming into the Easter long weekend had increased its runs across the Nullarbor to more than 40 a week between Melbourne and Perth, and services to Brisbane had also lifted by close to 10 per cent.
A double-stacked interstate goods train can be as long as 1.8km, hauling more than 330 shipping containers — each of which can hold 25,000 rolls of toilet paper, 1500 cases of beer or as many as 65,000 Easter chocolate bunnies.
The uptick in freight reported by Pacific National mirrors that of other logistics majors, with rival rail hauler Aurizon and its partner Linfox reporting last week that freight deliveries into regional Queensland had lifted more than 20 per cent after the coronavirus outbreak as shops tried to restock empty shelves.
While consumer goods had driven the surge in additional services, Pacific National said on Sunday that its bulk coal and grain businesses were also holding up well, helping underpin Australia’s export revenue.
But the Pacific National boss said it was not clear whether the surge in freight haulage would be sustained, or whether a broader economic slowdown would eventually hit the company’s business.
He said the unpredictable nature of the coronavirus pandemic and its huge impacts on social and economic activities at home and abroad meant it was difficult to predict whether freight and coal volumes would hold up in coming months.
“How long this bump in demand lasts is anyone’s guess — this pandemic is unprecedented, unpredictable and pervasive. Current consumer demand could quickly deflate,” he said.
And, while the interstate and internal movement restrictions had made life for its drivers and their 800 weekly journeys more complex, Mr Dalla Valle said the essential nature of freight services had been recognised by state and federal governments.
“Rail freight has the added benefit of operating within railway corridors and depots prohibited to the public,” he said.
Pacific National’s increased capacity also helps to free up truck drivers to focus on delivering goods and products to the remaining “last mile” from warehouses to stores.
Linfox founder Lindsay Fox in late March told The Australian the group had ramped up its local fleet to have 800 trucks on the road each day to service the surge-buying in the grocery and beverages sectors.
This dwarfs the company’s standard Christmas peak of 500 trucks a day.
This article first appeared on www.theaustralian.com.au
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