Since Covid-19 first led to shutdowns in China more than a year ago, international freight movements have been in disarray. No country and no industry are immune.
The New York Times elegantly described the global crisis as the virus having "thrown off the choreography of moving cargo from one continent to another".
Manufacturers, wholesalers, retailers, consumers and transport operators are all feeling the downstream effects. Covid shut down factories and ports and changed production and consumption patterns in the world's biggest economies, compounding delays once production re-started.
At the same time, disrupted shipping led to empty containers building up where they were not needed, and being unavailable where they were needed. Recovery from Covid has been uneven – as China was starting up again, the US was shutting down.
Lines of ships waiting to get into ports became normal and, in some cases, ships themselves became a holding location for containers, rather than warehouses.
While New Zealand has been spared the worst Covid effects seen in the Northern Hemisphere, it has suffered a similar scenario of supply chain disruption, particularly focused on its biggest ports – Auckland and Tauranga.
In New Zealand, the greatest disruption coincided with the pre-Christmas freight peak, and has run on into the high season for agricultural exports. Ship schedules lost alignment and ships waited to get into ports – sometimes only dropping off containers but not waiting to reload, stranding exports.
To avoid congestion at Ports of Auckland, some ships turned elsewhere, including to the Port of Tauranga – which has accepted additional containers beyond its ideal capacity for holding them. It has asked KiwiRail to provide more trains than we are contracted to provide, to take containers away so that space is available for new arrivals.
We have increased our service, but the rail network does not have unlimited capacity, and we do not have unlimited locomotives and wagons.
Getting freight flowing freely requires everybody working together. KiwiRail, which did not create this crisis, is doing what it can to relieve the current stress.
KiwiRail itself is in a period of recovery. Following years of under-investment, Budget 2019 allocated $1.1 billion and Budget 2020 allocated a further $1.2 billion to KiwiRail. This investment, along with other funding, is enabling us to build a more reliable and resilient network for freight across the country, and in our busy Auckland and Wellington commuter networks. Some parts of the Auckland network take a train every five minutes in peak hours.
Across New Zealand, we operate and maintain more than 3700km of track, 106 tunnels and 1344 bridges. Looking after this infrastructure, while still running 43,000 freight trains a year, and providing the networks that, in a pre-Covid year, enables 28 million commuter journeys by rail in Auckland and Wellington, is a huge, complex, logistical undertaking.
Fixing problems takes time. So does buying new locomotives and wagons. Included in last's year's Budget was $421 million over four years for new locomotives - but it's not like buying a truck from a lot. It takes years.
The single busiest part of the network is Auckland. KiwiRail is grateful for the patience of commuters and neighbours as it has worked to bring the network back up to standard after testing revealed nearly a year ago that rail remediation was crucial. That has meant stopping services to allow our people to work safely. Unlike road, rail does not have the option of diverting trains.
In Auckland, our teams delivered an accelerated work programme across seven months to replace and de-stress 134km of rail, install more than 20,000 sleepers and lay 23,000 cubic metres of ballast. Contractors are also at work on the projects to electrify the line between Papakura and Pukekohe and to build a new stretch of third main to allow greater capacity between Wiri and Quay Park.
Extra trains cannot easily be supplied by shifting them from other routes. KiwiRail is a national network and to make the best use of our rolling stock, it is committed to schedules, often under contract, across many services.
We have a contracted programme with Port of Tauranga to run 62 trains a week. Currently, we are running 78, and are looking to move to 86-90 trains per week shortly.
We are also using the newly-refurbished Northland line to shift containers from ships which have diverted to Northport. This is only possible because of the work that was done in lowering 13 tunnels and replacing five bridges on our Northland line, using money from the Provincial Growth Fund.
Rail is linear, yet complex. It will take time but a newly energised KiwiRail is confident that New Zealand's economy, communities, environment and improved supply chains will benefit from our investment in a more reliable and resilient rail network.
• Greg Miller is chief executive of KiwiRail