Truckers quit, supermarkets impose purchase caps as east-west rail line remains closed

“We will continue to monitor the situation week by week and once we know when repair work on the tracks needs to be completed.”

About 80% of WA’s land freight arrives via the rail line, which the Australian Rail Track Corporation said on Monday would be out of service for at least 12 days as repairs are undertaken on 300 kilometers of track. This has exacerbated WA’s supply problems caused by its closed borders, which truckers say are deterring east coast and local truckers due to strict compliance and quarantine rules.

Owners of small fleets, casuals hardest hit

Combined with truck drivers across the country catching COVID-19, having to self-isolate or awaiting testing, this has created a high demand for drivers.

But in WA, Transport Workers Union Secretary of State Tim Dawson said truckers were being let go this week as freight dried up, noting that small fleet owners who subcontract to large businesses, as well as casuals, would be the most affected. He said some company agreements included disaster pay for a “period of time”, but that was a serious situation.

“Until they find another solution for the next two weeks, there will be a number of problems,” he said.

“[And] it’s the first week, so they are [drivers] probably still some rail freight from warehouses where they still have stock. But if they don’t find a solution… yes, it will only get worse. Nobody expected a delay of about three weeks in the rail.

“But people are trying very hard, whether it’s the government, the retailers, the railroads, ourselves in the union, and everyone is trying to find solutions to this.”

Purchase limits in supermarkets

Following meetings earlier in the week with governments and stakeholders, Woolworths and Coles introduced temporary supermarket buying limits on Thursday. The “precautionary move” will limit Woolworths shoppers to two packets of flour, sugar, rice, pasta, eggs, paper towels, frozen fruit, frozen vegetables and frozen fries.

At Coles, shoppers face similar limitations with certain meat products, such as two chicken thighs and breasts. Both retailers, however, pointed out that the bulk of fresh produce, including milk, meat, fruit and vegetables, was grown or produced in WA.

“It’s going to be a difficult time, and we encourage our customers to be flexible if the products they would normally purchase are unavailable,” Coles said.

Western Australia Transport Minister Rita Saffioti said on Thursday that Pacific National had established a ‘land bridge’ to WA which involves using rail and then trucks across South Australia around the floods and in WA, and rail again from Kalgoorlie to Perth. The government was also working with trucking companies on the use of additional and larger trucks to compensate for the loss of the rail line.

But truckers said it would bring little relief given it paled in comparison to the volume of rail containers delivered each day.

“This flooding has really shown how bad things are in terms of infrastructure for WA and in terms of supply. The whole system collapsed,” said a truck driver who was fired. The driver said derailments were frequent due to the condition of the track.

“By the middle of next week, you’ll see, stocks have run down to a bare minimum. The big problems haven’t hit yet, but when they do, people are going to be screaming from the rooftop.

Mr Smith said while the recent floods were being reported as a once-in-200-year event, rail line closures due to weather and fires had become common and the government needed to commit to upgrading “sections below the network standards.

“We are part of the Federal Government’s Crisis Task Force… awaiting reopening guidance on the trail so SCT can mobilize essential food and industrial supplies to WA,” he said.