A Herculean post-Kaikoura earthquake effort from New Zealand’s logistics sector has ensured vital supplies continue to move throughout the domestic supply chain with relatively little impact on consumers. But while supermarket shelves may remain stocked, handling the significantly elongated, variable and more hazardous Picton–Christchurch freight task in particular is taking its toll on South Island truck drivers – their stocks are reportedly reaching zero.
Carr & Haslam managing director Chris Carr says regularly navigating the alternative Picton–Christchurch route is having a mounting impact on truck drivers – particularly given it now takes them over worktime limits for what was previously a same-day return.
“If you use that same driver and send them up to Picton now, they have to be away one night,” Mr Carr tells FTD. “It could be different if you run two drivers and run a swap operation, which some do. They’ll have a driver in Picton – who probably didn’t exist there before – and they meet the truck in the middle somewhere, do a vehicle swap, and one goes back to Picton and the other to Christchurch. But if they didn’t live in Picton before, then they have to be put up there and don’t get home for a week.”
PUSHING THE LIMITS
Mr Carr observes that roads not designed for high volumes of commercial traffic have gone from accommodating about 50 trucks to 600 trucks per day, as well as having increased general motorist volume.
“There has been a temptation for quite a small number of people to push their driving hours and to drive too quickly. One of those guys took out one of our trucks – he was cutting a corner with a 20-metre-plus B-train and there was nowhere for our guy to go,” he says.
“As a result of that, we sat down with all of our people and determined we would not do any more night trips, and we set a company speed limit of 80 kph. I would have pulled it further, but couldn’t because if you pull it down too far and the other traffic is going faster, you get too much of a barrier – cars are already overtaking in crazy positions,” he notes.
“We felt a 10 kph drop would give the drivers more reaction time. It may frustrate them a little as well, but we thought the gains in safety were worth it.”
Road Transport Forum New Zealand (RTF) chief executive Ken Shirley also notes there are “incentives to push boundaries” – particularly for those who have their investment on the line. “Obviously, if you have a $500,000 rig with debt, you want it working hard,” he says. “But we must be a compliant industry and we cannot condone any pushing of the boundaries. The boundaries are there – the work time rule for very good reasons – and fatigue is a serious issue,” he emphasises.
“Seventy hours [before a mandatory 24-hour break] is really the upper limit and you could argue in many instances that that is not desirable. There were some in our industry who thought this might present an opportunity to get extended hours on a regular basis, but all of our associations said no, we shouldn’t go down that path.”
Mr Shirley expects the onset of winter to further raise risk factors. “You’ve got a lot of high-altitude basins and river valleys that are prone to things like black ice, wet conditions and snow. Lewis Pass is frequently closed with snow. That is going to add to the challenge,” he comments.
“Whether the tourism traffic volumes will be down through winter, which may offset the risks to some extent, our message to our members is to be aware – it is going to get more hazardous and so more caution and care is required.”
As a consequence of such stresses, Mr Carr says some truck drivers have simply reached a point of saying ‘I’m out of here, I’m not going to do it any more’. However, he praises his team for sticking to the task. “Our people all come back and say, ‘Hey, it’s not good, the road’s hard, we’re working harder, we’ve got to concentrate more, it’s more tiring’. They’re not whinging – they’re just reporting matter-of-fact and accepting that there is a problem there,” he says.
“It is a kind of ‘suck it up and get on with it’ situation, because there is a driver shortage and if you’re going to move the same amount of freight, you’re going to need two or three times the number of drivers to do it – and they just don’t exist,” he adds.
“The guys are just getting on with it. They’re accepting this is a temporary thing – they all wish it would finish, but they’re doing it. It’s a kind of transport industry thing.”
Relaying similar tales, Mr Shirley says that while bodies such as the RTF can offer general guidelines and recommendations, the real coping work is being facilitated within transport firms at the coal face.
“All the smart companies know they have to look after their drivers and have employed all manner of support systems to help the situation. Obviously those that do are good employers and those that don’t feel the pain more,” he notes. “Giving leave, looking after families, all of the pastoral care that human resources can provide in situations like this to make sure that people aren’t just left isolated and unsupported – it is really just support in all manner of forms.”
LOWERING THE SPEED LIMITS
Given such concerns, a proposed bylaw to convert a range of temporary lower speed limits on the alternative Picton–Christchurch route into permanent limits has been welcomed by the trucking fraternity.
“They [the New Zealand Transport Agency] have looked at all the potential trouble spots and choke points and put in areas of speed restrictions [on what used to be open road]. However, an ongoing problem is the number of motorists crossing double-yellow lines on that route,” says Mr Shirley.
Adds Mr Carr: “My view is those roads aren’t designed for the weights that we’re putting over them, so the only way to protect them is to slow down. It goes against every bit of my grain, but if we don’t take the longer-term view, we’ll break the roads and no one will have anything. It’s better to slow down and lose a couple of hours so that everything is working.”
The bylaw proposal, which was drafted by the NZTA in light of current emergency speed limits nearing the end of their six-month legal term, was to conclude its consultation phase in early May, with a decision on any changes to speed limits to be announced mid-June.
Another pleasing development for the sector is the government’s recent announcement it is investing $60 million to upgrade the alternative highway. These progressive works include widening several sections of road, ongoing resealing, installing several new Bailey bridges alongside existing one-way bridges, installing traffic signals on several one-way bridges, and using radars and webcams to measure traffic volumes and provide travel updates.
Describing the upgrade as “vital”, Mr Carr ironically adds: “Nobody ever thought we would need it. It just shows you the strategic need for alternatives when calamities happen.
“There are parts where the road is so narrow you can’t get two trucks through side by side. When no one else was on it, the trucks would sit more in the middle of the road and cruise along, but now they are sitting on the edges, because traffic is coming both ways, and the edges are starting to break away. The centre part of the road is also starting to break up.”
Both parties have also welcomed the government’s recent $812 million commitment to reinstate State Highway 1 between Picton and Christchurch, with Mr Carr describing as “nuts” any suggestion a new route could have instead been forged.
“There are something like seven fault lines running through that area and a whole lot of mountains made of very solid rock. I don’t know how you could conceivably build any type of cost-effective alternative, given the topography and geology of the place. It would be a huge cost,” he says.
“We’ve never had a problem before and the chances are we’ll never have another one – or maybe just another one. Building along the coastline is relatively easy compared to building through the mountains.”
A HUGE ACCOMPLISHMENT
Also welcoming the government’s confirmation that investment was not coming from the National Land Transport Fund, Mr Shirley says that while it was “healthy” to first take a greenfields approach, ultimately “there is no alternative”. He also embraces the opportunity presented by the rebuild to deliver an upgraded coastal route.
In parting, Mr Shirley reflects on the “unsung story” in the post-Kaikoura earthquake environment. “New Zealanders don’t appreciate just how severe potentially that incident was in terms of disruption and how our sector – and also the shipping industry and rail – has actually just made things happen, largely behind the scenes. A tremendous effort has gone in to making things work – it is a huge accomplishment to have kept the logistics task going.”
Noting that Auckland–Christchurch deliveries have gone from requiring about four-and-a-half days to now up to 12 days, Mr Carr adds: “The general public have no idea of the difficulties that they potentially face if their life and business are dependent on traffic between Picton and Christchurch. The supply chain is hanging by a thread.”
Iain MacIntyre is an award-winning journalist who specialises in transport issues within New Zealand firstname.lastname@example.org