Truckies delivered to aviod economic disaster

  • 08 Sep

Despite calls for more rail and sea freight, trucking remains crucial to economic growth, writes the chief executive of National Road Carriers, DAVID AITKEN.

OPINION: Trucks and truckies have received plenty of flak over the years, but in the last 12 months, they have been key players in averting an economic disaster in this country.

The November earthquake dramatically disrupted the movement of freight between the North and South Islands and within the South Island north of Christchurch. Rail connections disappeared without warning as did a section of State Highway 1 – the main route between Blenheim and Christchurch.

I'm not sure people realise how close Christchurch and the rest out the South Island came to being cut off from all the goods and freight from the North Island – the things they rely on to go about their daily personal and business lives.

But despite the havoc wreaked by the quake, the cut off never came, as the road transport industry stepped up in a time of crisis.

* Linehaul drivers quit due to dangerous conditions and inexperienced drivers
* Kaikoura detour struggles to cope with extra traffic
* 'Yacht fuel' is the most common load carried by truckies
* Six months of the alternative highway

We put extra trucks on the road and made things happen. We have kept the flow of goods and freight going by responding to the sudden escalation in demand for road freight transport's services.

Trucking companies also stepped up as the earthquake's aftermath had a ripple effect throughout the rest of the country.

We've continued to supply Christchurch and the rest of the South Island with very little disruption, yet the extra time and effort required has been colossal.

We have worked with other freight operators as much as possible, but the bulk of the freight between Picton and Christchurch since the earthquake has been shifted by trucks. Fifteen thousand tonnes of freight a day is currently travelling on the "inland" route between Picton and Christchurch.

Coastal shipping has increased about 35 percent, but it is slower and compromised by a Port of Wellington which is out of action for all container cargo – from the earthquakes – and the Port of Lyttelton which is still being rebuilt more than six years after the 2011 Canterbury earthquakes and remains far from full capacity.

The flexibility and adaptability of the road transport industry has saved the economy in the upper South Island.

And the lower North Island is not immune from the earthquake-induced obstacles. Without the Port of Wellington, sea freight must be trucked to alternative ports at Napier and other North Island points to get it to the South Island. Container freight bound for Wellington is now unloaded at Napier and trucked to the capital.

My point is, trucks and truckies have taken up the slack wherever needed.

Some companies have had to double their fleets on the Christchurch – Picton run because of the longer time to complete the journey, even though they are carrying no more freight. Productivity has as much as halved.

The road freight industry has put hundreds of more trucks on the road in both islands to cover freight no longer being shipped by rail or sea.

The extra trucks were also needed to cover the increased distances and travel times between Marlborough and Canterbury via the Buller region and Lewis Pass. At times, this road is closed and an even longer trip is necessary via Nelson, Greymouth and Arthur's Pass.

In the wake of the earthquake, trucks on this "inland" route increased from around 40 to around 580 a day, shifting more than 15,000 tonnes of freight every day.

A return trip between Christchurch and Picton is no longer possible in a day. Before the quake, some operators were making two return trips a day with two drivers on shift work. Now the best return trip time is around 18 hours, using two drivers. Extra trucks and drivers are needed to get the same amount of work done.

Despite a shortage of drivers, the industry has continued to deliver.

Even when coastal shipping and rail freight is back to pre-quake capacity, road transport will be increasingly critical to the economy.

I find it amusing to hear from those who want trucks off the road with their place taken by rail and sea. People appear to have no idea how the necessities of life get delivered to where they purchase or use them.

Nine out of ten trucks on New Zealand roads operate within urban areas, taking goods from the rail head or distribution hub and delivering them to destinations across towns and cities. Large inter-city truck and trailer units look impressive but only account for a small fraction of the journeys covered by the industry.

Sea and rail freight do play a key role but they will never be able to deliver door-to-door – to supermarkets, shopping malls, building sites, businesses large and small and to private individuals.

And with a rapidly growing population New Zealand's continued economic growth will be increasingly dependent on the road freight transport sector into the future.

More people means a greater demand for all the goods a modern society needs, more doors for them to be delivered to and more trucks needed to deliver them.

It will be more important than ever for trucks and truckies to keep the wheels of commerce turning.

- Stuff