KiwiRail is adding four extra freight trains this week on the Tauranga to Auckland line to help ease import delays caused by shipping congestion at Auckland's port.
Port of Tauranga chief executive Mark Cairns said the additional trains, which will carry an extra 428 or so containers to Auckland a week, are part of a big effort to reduce the build-up of import containers landed at Tauranga after being offloaded from ships avoiding Auckland.
The trains run between the Tauranga port, which is a heavy user of rail, and Metroport, its inland port in South Auckland.
The imports jam comes as the Port of Tauranga, New Zealand's biggest port and its main export gateway, deals with its peak export season, and as retailers and manufacturers face not being able to fill orders and missing out on Christmas goods sales.
Auckland is the country's main import port.
The Auckland Council-owned port has attributed the congestion to Covid-affected global shipping delays and disruption, the hangover from port strikes in Australia, and to its own wharf operations labour shortage. However some sector participants blame Auckland port's failure to fully implement a five-year-old automation project, the cost of which is being kept under wraps.
A port spokesman "strongly rejected" claims the automation project is the problem.
Cairns has said the congestion is due to issues at Auckland's port.
"While Covid-19 is not to blame for the current congestion, the pandemic has had a massive impact on Port of Tauranga's operations," he told a recent customer function.
Asked to elaborate by the Herald he said: "The fact is they are only working three cranes during the day and two at night. They have eight cranes. That is the problem."
This situation has been confirmed by an Auckland port spokesman, who attributed the under-utilisation of cranes to a labour shortage. The port was trying to recruit 50 stevedores, hopefully by Christmas.
The port declined to comment on Cairns' claim Covid-19 is not to blame for the congestion issue.
Meanwhile Cairns said by working with customers, Tauranga port had reduced to 1900 the number of containers waiting to be delivered - from previous highs of 3000. The containers would be delivered within five to seven days.
Port sector suggestions last week of a three-month delay in clearing containers from Tauranga was "absolute rubbish", he said.
"We've worked with our customers to reduce the free period they can leave a box at Metroport or drop an export box off."
Congestion through Metroport and the Port of Tauranga was definitely easing, he said.
Meanwhile, Auckland Council has, along with Auckland port company, refused to provide the cost so far of the automation project - the first in the country and not now due to go fully live until the end of March. Half the port's operations have been automated so far. Sector observers claim the cost could by now be running into hundreds of millions of dollars.
"The Port Companies Act requires the Ports of Auckland Limited (POAL) to operate commercially, while also being accountable for its performance to shareholders," the council said in a written response to the Herald.
"As a company that operates commercially in a competitive environment, investment decisions, including capex projects such as the automation project, are regarded as commercially sensitive and therefore confidential.
"POAL reports to the council regularly and advises that in the trial period productivity is ahead of other automated projects around the world at a similar stage of introduction.
"POAL's automation project aims to increase capacity to handle growing container volumes while minimising the port's footprint and ceasing past practice of continual reclamations and extensions into the harbour."
Auckland Business Chamber chief executive Michael Barnett has said he is getting regular messages from businesses struggling to recover from Covid and frustrated at delays in receiving imported goods.
An email, seen by the Herald, from a North Shore business which relies on distributing imports to retailers nationwide, warned the business could fail.
Shipping lines have imposed "Auckland port congestion surcharges" of US$400 to US$560 per 40-foot import container. The higher costs, which they say are due to "significant disruption and extra costs for carriers", will inevitably be passed on to consumers by importers.
Cairns told the customer function the listed port had got through the challenging year due to the strength and resilience of its people.
"I know that many of you will be feeling the pain caused by the current capacity constraints at the Ports of Auckland and the flow-on effects throughout the supply chain.
"We share your frustration. We have had to deal with unprecedented and unforecasted levels of diverted imports as well as peak export season. We're doing what we can to alleviate the pressure and with extra rail capacity we could do more ... we'll continue to work with KiwiRail to ensure shippers can bypass the bottleneck in Auckland as much as possible."
Cairns said during Covid-19 lockdown the port's container team set a new record container exchange on a single vessel, eclipsing the previous record by nearly a third to 9367 containers on the Sally Maersk, a big ship that calls in at Tauranga.
The port had also managed to commission its ninth container crane. It had arrived in parts from Ireland in mid-February and was lifting containers and earning revenue within 13 weeks, he said.
Despite Covid uncertainties, the port was still preparing to add a fourth container berth and hoped to use fast-track legislation to get the project moving as soon as possible.
"Longer term, we'll look to maximise our container handling space by installing automated stacking cranes to intensify our land use without extending our footprint."