Northport-Auckland Christmas convoy smooths out the speed bumps

A smoother ride is expected for the big Christmas imports truck convoy heading from Northport to Auckland after communication potholes got it off to a rocky start.

Trucking organisations, National Road Carriers and the Road Transport Forum have expressed a wish for the smooth operation of the mammoth effort to get nearly 1200 containers of mostly Christmas goods from Northport, south of Whangarei, to Auckland and further south by road in time.

The ship carrying the boxes from China and North Asia would have had to wait until at least December 22 to unload at Auckland’s port because of ship congestion and long delays there, so Northport stepped up to last week accept the biggest container ship it has ever handled.

The combination of a challenging job for the small container port, no available rail infrastructure and a tricky, fragile highway on top of truck queue frustration led to a public spat on Saturday between truck sector representatives and the port.

The truck sector hit social media, saying some trucks from Auckland were turned away empty when the port needed to close in the afternoon to rest staff until Monday morning, the implication being that it was unexpected.

But the port could hold up an advisory dated Wednesday December 9 that informed the sector it would close at 3pm on Saturday December 12 for operators’ health and safety, and would reopen at 6am Monday.

In the fallout it emerged that vocal critic the National Road Carriers hadn’t seen the advisory and the port’s hastily introduced loading slot booking system was misunderstood.

With the overall challenge of the container mission for all parties and the cost of a truck’s wasted return journey – according to NRC, $3 per km over 300km -tempers had frayed.

But by Monday noon NRC and the Road Transport Forum seemed to have swallowed their strong reservations about the wisdom of Northport handling containers for southward transit enough to say they wanted the mission to go smoothly.

NRC chief executive David Aitken told the Herald he “didn’t want to get into a fight with Northport”.

“We want to be able to operate safely, to send a truck 140-150km and be confident the booking will be honoured and come back with the container.”

Forum chief executive Nick Leggett: “We just have to work in together. Probably communication could be improved.”

The Herald understands Northport, which reacted angrily to the criticism given its herculean effort with limited resources and the fact it had advised ahead of the early Saturday closure, has since been talking to truck sector leaders.

Meanwhile, Port of Tauranga which has been handling import container ships avoiding Auckland as well as its own export season, said it had about 16,000 containers in its yard.

Chief executive Mark Cairns said that was about 25 per cent above what the port would normally try to operate for optimal productivity. A lot of double handling was involved.

It was the listed port’s peak export season with kiwifruit coming to an end and dairy exports under way.

“We are doing our best to accept diverted vessels and imports where we can. We are currently utilising every available bit of land.”

An example of diverting ships was one which dropped off 771 containers last Wednesday. They had now been railed to Auckland, Cairns said.

“The biggest constraint to us taking on additional cargo has been the availability of trains to transfer imports to Auckland. Over the last three weeks we have asked for 12 additional trains and Kiwirail have only managed to provide four additional trains.”

Auckland Council-owned Ports of Auckland is the country’s main import gateway.

NZX-listed Port of Tauranga is New Zealand’s biggest port and the main export gateway.

The Auckland port has blamed its ship congestion – vessels have been waiting up to 10 days to berth and unload – on global shipping congestion caused by Covid-19 impacts, unprecedented demand for imported goods and a labour shortage.

Maersk, the world’s biggest container shipping line has warned the local congestion situation could continue into the second quarter of next year.

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