All revved up and nowhere to tow

Sunday, April 8, 2018

The Takaka Hill and the solitary bitumen lifeline to a large chunk of New Zealand. Local business people like Merv Solly had a contingency for when the inevitable one day happened.

When ex-Cyclone Gita trashed a section of State Highway 60 on the Takaka Hill, which links Golden Bay and Nelson, it was a stark reminder to Golden Bay’s 6000 permanent residents that their supply lines were dependent on trucks.

The Takaka Hill is the only road in and out of Golden Bay and its closure shut the door without warning to trucks bringing supplies to the town. Within half a day, the only supermarket was cleaned out of groceries, and petrol and diesel were rationed until new supplies could come in.

Golden Bay’s largest transport business is Sollys Freight. Merv Solly had long considered that the Takaka Hill road could close and had a contingency plan in place, thanks in part to having good relationships in the wider transport industry.

Within two days, the first trucks trundled into Golden Bay, having arrived by sea. Sollys Freight had organised the lease of a barge from Picton, loading ramps at Port Nelson and Port Tarakohe in Golden Bay, loading and unloading systems, and a pilot.

“We’ve always had that contingency because we’ve always used barges,” Merv said. “I had a lot of experience with Sea Two tugs and barges so I’m completely au fait with all of that. It’s old hat to me really.

“We have a shareholding in the [small coastal freighter] Anatoki so we can toss that around a bit. We have a lot of relationships in tug and barging and were able to hook into one of those to find one which was best suited and available.”

The barge was used for the major priorities – bringing food and fuel into the bay, and getting produce out. It could load and unload only at high tide, with trucks driving on and off the bow ramp. A round trip took six hours.

Kyle van de Pas, plant manager at Fonterra in Takaka, said Fonterra’s most urgent priority was to get cream out of Golden Bay to Nelson, from where it could be trucked for processing in Clandeboye, South Canterbury.

The Fonterra trucks that collect milk from farms have flow meters and needed to remain in in Golden Bay, so Fonterra used contractors’ trucks to move the cream to Nelson.

Initially a Sollys fertiliser truck reversed the Fonterra tanks on trailers down from the main road.

“It was taking up too much time and we had to make sure we were ready to go when the tide started going out,” Kyle said, “so we just had trucks going on from that point on.”

Kyle said every Fonterra site review includes a business continuity plan (BCP).

“That’s to think about scenarios like that for Takaka and the rest of the South Island: what happens if the hill is closed for any reason and what would we do. This is the first time we’ve implemented it.” They worked closely with Solly’s to get trucks on to the barge.

“We did it based on what happens theoretically but now we can update the BCP based on what actually happened and make sure we run through every single possibility so we don’t lose any milk and nothing gets dumped.”

The barge was always only a temporary measure as it was expensive and dependent on good weather.

“Road transport is a fraction of barging costs,” Merv said. “Even Anatoki can’t compete on short haul, road transport beats it to death. Most of it is port costs, wharfage and all the stuff that keeps on going.” He said when the port costs were included they more than doubled the total shipping costs, per tonne.

When the NZ Transport Agency partially opened the hill road on 25 February, trucks on both sides of the hill were revved up and ready to go – but the news wasn’t all good. Trucks were given priority, but trailers and over-sized vehicles were banned because there was insufficient swinging room for them to negotiate some narrow, tight corners in the single-lane damaged sections. The hill would be open to convoys led by pilot vehicles only from 7am to 8am and 5pm to 6pm.

The first convoy comprised around 70% freight vehicles and 30% campervans and private vehicles.

Most bulk carriers needed two to three trucks to replace the capacity of one truck and trailer. Kyle said a Fonterra truck carried approximately 10,000 litres of cream – a truck and trailer unit approximately 27,000 litres. Fonterra was running at least two trucks every morning and evening to take cream out of the bay, picking up trailers carrying more cream in Brightwater, near Nelson, before continuing on to Clandeboye.

Drivers for Sollys and other companies who made the morning convoy to Nelson had to wait all day before queuing for the return convoy in the evening – it made for a long day, leaving the Takaka depot around 6am and often not returning until 7pm, although they had logged only a few hours’ drive time.

Merv said the restrictions on travel times and trailers increased freight costs by up to 70% and cost Sollys $600,000 since ex-Cyclone Gita closed the road.

On 20 March, NZTA network manager Frank Porter announced truck and trailer units could safely navigate the tighter corners after testing the route to ensure a range of truck configurations could safely navigate the road. The convoys were extended from 6am to 8am, and 5pm to 7pm, later being extended further.

Special permits were available for selected trucks and buses, with over-dimension and over-weight vehicles considered on a case-by-case basis.

Paul Holm, logistical planner at Fonterra in Hamilton, said the partial closure of the Takaka Hill limited the amount of milk Fonterra could send into Takaka for processing. Fonterra used contractors’ trucks because they run combination RUCs.

However, like Merv Solly, he said the biggest problem was the limited timing. “Our milk runs 24/7 and our factories run 24/7 but the timing condenses the trucks coming in and out of Takaka. There’s so much traffic going over one-way; that’s the biggest complaint we’re getting.”

Freight for Sollys had built up in other depots, including Christchurch. “We’re catching up slowly with it all,” said Merv, “but it’s still bloody restrictive having the time constraints.”

He said NZTA had done a good job of keeping people informed but the short work days were frustrating.

Craig Taylor, stock agent for PGG Wrightson, welcomed the access for truck-trailer units and said it lowered the cost of freighting stock for farmers.

“Some clients have been holding off selling or buying because they don’t know what it’s going to cost,” he said. “This will help them plan more accurately.” The barge had not been an option for sending livestock out of the bay.

The uncertainty around timing had been difficult for farmers, because they liked being able to send stock according to market prices, available feed on their properties, and available space at the freezing works.

The NZTA had seen an average of 1000 vehicles travel the hill each day, with 1900 on Sundays.

As New Zealand Trucking went to print, NZTA hoped to open single-lane access without convoys, managed by traffic signals, outside the daytime construction work of 8am to 5pm Monday to Saturday, including overnight, from 6 April onwards, dependent on good weather.

Lawrence Shadbolt manoeuvres a trailer onto the barge. Keeping the barge in synch with tide times meant trailers were discontinued in favour of trucks only.