Trade

The coronavirus cargo conundrum

LONDON — The battle against coronavirus is starting to look like a real war — complete with its own air force base.

A decommissioned RAF airport in the English county of Suffolk is set to see 20,000 shipping containers filled with unwanted goods stacked on its runway as shuttered shops cant sell while Chinese factories churn out and ship orders made long before the world went into lockdown.

Its just one of the massive changes to logistics resulting from the coronavirus pandemic that has upended normal shipping and retail patterns, reshaped rail transport and stranded tens of thousands of seafarers on cargo ships around the world.

Warehouse backlog

Ex-World War II airbase RAF Bentwaters, now known as Bentwaters Parks, could be a crucial dumping ground for the U.K. freight sector, which is struggling to store tons of nonessential items imported from Asia, such as clothing, manufacturing parts and electronics, which are not currently being sold during the COVID-19 lockdown.

After an initial shutdown in Chinese manufacturing during the worst of the coronavirus outbreak there during February and March, goods bound for U.K. shops are set to surge during May as a backlog of orders reaches British shores.

But theres one problem: Many of those high street retailers have been forced to close under lockdown rules imposed by Prime Minister Boris Johnson, meaning a brick wall at the end of the supply chain.

The blockage means a good chunk of the 50,000 shipping containers set to flow into Britain each week through May need a temporary home. With U.K. warehouses already near capacity, the industry is scrambling to find storage until the lockdown is lifted.

Peter Ward, the CEO of the U.K. Warehousing Association, said without an end to the lockdown (which is not expected in the coming days) the sector faces a major logistical challenge. “We are going to reach a pinch point where there is no warehousing, nowhere for this stuff to go and we must avoid at all costs the risk of ports becoming congested,” he said.

Traffic jams at ports would create a second problem by hampering the flow of essential items like food and medicine.

The Warehousing Association has launched an emergency space register, matching freight firms with warehouses to ensure every square foot is utilized. But it is also looking for so-called off-dock options — places like Bentwaters Parks, now managed by Debach Enterprises and used as a filming location with a Cold War museum on site, which offer large concrete areas that can house thousands of containers.

“We are standing by and ready to go, having identified the space and got the solutions prepared and ready for action,” Ward said.

The use of off-dock locations is not unusual, but the scale of the demand, with numerous retailers desperate for storage for such a large range of goods, is unprecedented.

Preparations for a no-deal Brexit toward the end of 2019 was good practice for the government, but for the freight industry the pandemic presents a different problem: How to manage a supply chain at a standstill rather than trying to keep just-in-time flows moving.

“The dynamics of this situation are very different, and its largely because of the static nature of so much of what is currently in stock,” Ward said.

Off the rails

Others in the sector have found silver linings around the coronavirus cloud. Freight trains have completed deliveries on the double after the lockdown saw passenger services dramatically cut, leaving the U.K. rail network practically empty.

James Sweeney, a freight train driver for U.K. firm Freightliner, said cargo services have a clearer path to their destinations and have seen wait times reduced as a result. “It means less stopping,” he said.

His train did not pass a single passenger service during the 30-mile trip between Shrewsbury and Crewe on the west of England last Friday. “Its quite surreal driving trains and not seeing passengers on the platforms,” he said.

Some freight train drivers have seen journeys that would usually take up to nine hours cut to three or four because they can take more direct routes.

More green lights at junctions lets drivers sit back and enjoy the ride. “Youve got time to look out the side window and watch the world go by,” Sweeney said. “If youre running on greens it makes it much more enjoyable, especially during this gorgeous weather. Its been quite nice.”

Some freight train drivers have seen journeys that would usually take up to nine hours cut to three or four | Isabel Infantes/AFP via Getty Images

But the picture is not all good for rail freight.

Some services are working flat out to provide cargo to supermarkets, the energy sector and construction, while in other areas demand has disappeared. Overall, the industry is running at around 30 percent to 50 percent below capacity, with some trains being forced to run at a loss and numerous staff sent home under a government scheme that pays 80 percent of salaries for workers who would otherwise lose their jobs.

“I think every business in the country is struggling,” said Maggie Simpson, director general of the Rail Freight group. “I would be lying if I said there werent businesses in our membership who are struggling.”

Ferries and airliners, which carry freight as well as passengers, are also facing an existential threat. A drop in tourism and other travel has made cargo routes financially unviable, with a knock-on impact on ports and airports. The U.K. government announced a support package for ferry routes between the Continent, Great Britain and Northern Ireland last week to ease some of the pressure. Some firms, such as P&O Ferries, are already asking for more.

“The sector is now facing what could be one of the most serious economic hits there has ever been in modern history,” said Alex Veitch, head of multimodal and international policy at the Freight Transport Association. He put the drop in business at around 85 percent. “We completely understand the reasons for the lockdown but the fact is the longer it persists the more challenging it is going to get for everybody.”

Veitch said the government scheme to pay workers salaries, has become a lifeline: “Furlough is keeping a lot of businesses going right now.”

Cabin fever

Being stuck at home is surely preferable to being stuck at sea, which is where tens of thousands of seafarers working on cargo ships around the world have ended up. Scores of nations have banned international entry during their COVID-19 lockdowns, meaning sailors whose contracts have ended cannot go ashore to travel home.

Crew changes across the globe have all but completely stopped over the past two months, while some seafarers who make it to nations with lighter restrictions have found themselves stuck in hotels, unable to get a flight home.

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