SEVERE rainfall and flooding in South Australia has disrupted domestic freight, exposing infrastructural and systemic weaknesses.  

Described by meteorologists as a once in 200-year event, the rainfall has severed critical rail networks, forcing freight to be diverted.

The Australian Rail Track Corporation said 18 sites stretching over 300 kilometres have been affected by the floods. Most sites have now been assessed by engineering and project staff.

Sections of the ARTC network between Adelaide and Tarcoola have been impacted and operations have ceased.

“Because of the extensive weather event, that included over 200 millimetres of rain in 24 hours in some areas, services from Adelaide to Perth and Darwin continue to be impacted,” an ARTC spokesperson said.

Large-scale repair works are now underway, though one small section of track has not yet been assessed due to access constraints in the area.

“Additional contractors are now on site to assist ARTC crews and works include building access roads, ensuring supplies can get to damaged locations and supporting restoration works.”

The spokesperson said ARTC is ensuring the section of track is restored to enable to safe passage of trains.

“ARTC expects track will remain closed for at least twelve days and a further update on timeframes for recovery will be provided later this week.

“We want to reassure our customers and the community that we will restore these links as quickly as possible.”

Exposing infrastructural weaknesses

South Australian Freight Council executive officer Evan Knapp told DCN the region is expecting more wild weather, and that rail segments may be out of action for longer than two weeks.  

“The Stuart Highway is also severed in portions, so there is no transport possible from South Australia to the Northern Territory at all,” Mr Knapp said.

“That freight is being directed from South Australia along the Barrier Highway into New South Wales, and New South Wales up into Mount Isa in Queensland, and then from Queensland back across to the Northern Territory, which is a diversion of about 1650 kilometres each way.

“It’s obviously not ideal for the guys in the Northern Territory. It’s a significant problem there.”

Although Western Australia is now accessible by road, that road had been cut by flooding, and may go under again as the weather persists.

The challenge of accessing Western Australia is being amplified by the number of truck drivers needed to deliver freight while the tracks are closed.

“With COVID, we’ve already got a shortage of drivers, and then adding onto this, trying to carry rail loads by road is creating significant delays,” Mr Knapp said.

“There are places in outback South Australia where the air force is currently doing emergency drops, particularly into Coober Pedy.

“It’s going to take a long time for the waters to recede and for the infrastructure to be fixed, and it’s possible it could get worse.”

Mr Knapp said another layer of issues has surfaced during the onslaught of extreme weather and freight challenges.

“There’s a lot of things happening at once, and what we call that perfect storm, and one of the things it has raised as an issue is the resilience of infrastructure,” he said.

“The freight council in the past has asked for governments to prepare a South Australia infrastructure resilience strategy to look at what we have, what’s most important, and how resilient it is to various natural and unnatural disasters such as what we’re going through right now.

Mr Knapp said rebuilding should involve safeguarding infrastructure against future weather events, rather than just restoring it to its original condition.

“Simply building back what we had before means that if we get another big flood, we’re going to end up in exactly the same situation,” he said

“I think it’s clear that what we need to start doing is thinking, for example, about putting extra drainage through underneath the interstate main line, so that the floodwaters have somewhere to go.”

Mr Knapp said the current circumstances clearly necessitate action from the state and federal governments.

“In the current climate, where we’ve hit a big speedbump, we now know that the infrastructure hasn’t managed to cope,” he said.

“It’s a good idea for governments to be taking a big look at what they own and how resilient it is to major weather events especially in the context of a changing climate.”

The challenge of coastal shipping

Despite the inconvenience of transporting freight by road under current circumstances, coastal shipping is still not a feasible alternative.

“The current disruptions to international shipping around South Australia make moving goods by sea through to Western Australia even more challenging and less reliable than usual,” Mr Knapp said.

However, on 31 January, the federal government has exempted voyages to Western Australia by containerships and ro-ro vessels from the Coastal Trading (Revitalising Australian Shipping) Act 2012 – effectively allowing unrestricted coastal shipping to Western Australian ports. The exemption came into effect on 1 February and remains in force until 31 March.

In an explanatory memorandum on the Section 11 exemption from the act, the government said the exemption is “designed to address the extraordinary circumstances due to the rail line to Western Australia being affected by flooding”.

Maritime Industry Australia has announced its support for the government’s exemption.

MIAL described the measures as sensible and pragmatic, encouraging operators who are not already at maximum capacity to make space available quickly and without complex administrative impediments.

However, the association said the benefit of shipping needs to be recognised beyond the current emergency situation.

MIAL suggested Australia could become more resilient and self-reliant with a fraction of the attention and funding afforded to land transport options.

“Shipping should be a primary mode of transport around our coastline, not an avenue of last resort,” MIAL CEO Teresa Lloyd said.

“This is an opportunity for the Morrison government to identify shipping as a critical transport mode to secure our supply chains, both domestically and internationally, and put in place policies to support Australian shipping businesses to take control and perform more of the freight task.”

Ms Lloyd said the support the shipping industry needs is a fraction of the investment required to secure transnational rail lines.

“It doesn’t have to be an either/or situation,” she said. “Australia should have capability on road, on rail and at sea.”

The association said investment in the shipping industry needs to be reflected in the 2022 federal budget, namely an allocation toward Australian shipping capability.

“As an island nation, ships must form part of Australia’s critical infrastructure. Our maritime sector deserves to be fostered and secured in order that it can serve the Australian community.”