ROAD and rail connections to Western Australia are partially reopening as floodwaters recede in South Australia and coastal shipping has emerged as an effective alternative.

The movement of freight has been a challenge for about two weeks after heavy rains cut national networks and caused food supply shortages in Western Australia.

The issue has necessitated a move to new ways of moving freight such as truck convoys; a land bridge across the Nullarbor; and perhaps most notably, coastal shipping access to Western Australia.

Between 1 February and 31 March 2022, the federal government is permitting containerships and ro-ro vessels to deliver to Western Australian ports.

The change came into force under a Section 11 exemption of the Coastal Trading (Revitalising Australian Shipping) Act 2012, signed by minister for infrastructure, transport and regional development Barnaby Joyce in late January.

In an explanatory memorandum, the government said the exemption is designed to “address the extraordinary circumstances due to the rail line to Western Australia being affected by flooding”.

Shipping Australia said its members are supporting relief efforts by transporting essential goods to Western Australia by sea under the exemption.

They understand members have experienced a surge in bookings for east-to-west coastal cargo since the exemption was signed, reinforcing the demand for coastal shipping.

“Coastal shipping is the cheapest way to move goods and commodities around the Australian coast. It’s cheaper than rail, cheaper than land freight, and cheaper than trucking,” SAL said.

They said the act, which intends to revitalise Australian shipping, has achieved the opposite.

“There’s a persistent, continued, and sustained demand for the carriage of coastal cargo by international shipping, however we as a nation prevent ourselves from accessing it,” a SAL spokesperson said.

SAL said the quick response from shippers to booking cargo space under the exemption demonstrates the extent of the demand.

“The current situation, with the road and rail links to Western Australia being disrupted, yet again proves that there is a demand for the carriage of coastal cargo by international shipping,” the spokesperson said.

“It’s economically and environmentally beneficial, and it’s good for assisting disaster relief.”

Road and rail repairs continue

The Australian Rail Track Corporation has announced repair works on the ARTC rail network have progressed from the initial 18 sites damaged by flooding to four remaining locations.

The remaining sites were the most severely impacted by the flooding in central South Australia.  

“ARTC crews have been working around the clock on the weekend to repair damage caused by recent flooding,” an ARTC spokesperson said.

“Crews have full access to these sites for our construction vehicles and work is progressing well.”

They said dry weather is assisting the recovery efforts, and a further update will be provided in the coming days.

While track repairs are underway, a section of the Stuart Highway has been partially reopened.

The highway, which connects Darwin with Port Augusta, South Australia, had been cut by floodwaters in Central Australia for almost two weeks.  

National Heavy Vehicle Register CEO Sal Petroccitto said the re-opening of the highway would begin to ease the heavy vehicle traffic on alternative routes being used under NHVR approval.

“It’s another important step for the heavy vehicle industry, government and the regulator [to] keep the flow of goods and supplies on this north-south route,” Mr Petroccitto said.

“We’ll continue to work with the government and industry to assist in providing appropriate access across flood-impacted areas of Central Australia.”

Over the weekend, NHVR said vehicle traffic had started moving along the Stuart Highway north of Glendambo under strict conditions. The road was declared safe for trucks to use during daylight hours.

According to NHVR, the freight “land bridge” allowing the movement of containers from South Australia to Western Australia remains in place.

The two temporary access notices issued by the NHVR also remain in effect, allowing some heavy vehicles to deliver essential goods and supplies to the west.