The Fence

Renata Berglas on COVID-19 and transport

Renata Berglas is the CEO of the Queensland Transport and Logistics Council. Freight and logistics is a sector of the transport industry we’ve been keen to hear about in this series, given it had possibly had the most immediate and public-facing hit due to the COVID-19 pandemic, evidenced by the shortages in supermarkets.

In this interview we receive some insight into how quickly things happened behind the scenes at the start of the pandemic, the effect upon the honey industry, the highlighted need to hasten the sector’s transition to digital, interoperable systems, and more.

What are the main effects or changes due to COVID-19 that you’re seeing right now in transport?

Queensland Transport and Logistics Council (QLTC) is a policy think tank that provides the freight industry with a non-partisan, collaborative space to develop ideas and work through supply chain issues. With a focus on the longer-term objectives of efficiency and productivity gains, the QTLC’s work has remained un-disrupted during this period of hibernation.

What I have observed is a groundswell of collaboration and a willingness to adapt to a rapidly changing environment. Government agencies, Ministers, industry peaks, and individual participants have come together to resolve the disruptions COVID-19 policy decisions have caused.

When the Queensland borders closed the freight industry was front and centre in the decision-making process. In partnership with state government and the Queensland Police, freight was prioritised and procedures established to effectively deliver essential services. Closing the NSW border highlighted the volume and diversity of freight movements interstate. I learned in one meeting that beekeepers move their hives at night between agricultural areas. They were concerned if police conducted inspections with bright lights that the bees would swarm and cause harm!

The state government’s transparency in decision-making and openness to collaboration fast-tracked the decision making process. New policies were rapidly developed to solve many issues including how the meat, poultry, and seafood processing sector could continue operation with social distancing and COVID-19 restrictions in place. In stark contrast, the USA Government demonstrated a complete lack of support for the meat processing sector workers’ COVID-19 requirements, with devastating results. For me this demonstrated the value in investing in the public sector.

The community support for essential service providers including freight and logistics provided a rare opportunity for the industry to demonstrate their value to Australian way of life. I hope this perspective continues into the new normal when we emerge from lockdown.

What changes would you like to see in transport when the world rights itself post-pandemic?

Many people have commentated on the benefits of increasing flexibility in when we start and where we work on city congestion and public transport. Hopefully, this epidemic provides the supporting productivity data and catalyst needed to drive a shift to better working options.

Sick of the sardine packed peak hour buses, I recently bought an electric scooter to commute to work. It has proved to be a fun and efficient way to travel and I hope more people join me. There will be little tolerance for crowded public transport in a post COVID-19 world. But will people swap to the bike or e-scooter or will they seek the safety and convenience of their personal vehicle?

The pandemic has highlighted how important data and data analysis is to sound decision making. The freight industry is long way from transitioning to a digital, interoperable system. Customer visibility of consignments is largely based on having chosen a good freight logistics provider and forming a strong relationship. Sharing information more than one step up or down the supply chain currently remains an elusive prospect.

Companies that see the benefit in inventory management and end to end supply chain visibility impose their own digital system on the logistic provider. While this is an effective work around it does not deliver a common user platform or provide a level playing field. It effectively locks the supply chain partners into the company’s system. Port communities of practice are the only situation I know of that utilise data sharing to increase efficiencies.

It is difficult to build the digital data transparency value proposition necessary to shift people from relying on relationships and trust to driving the need for data-based decisions. Hopefully, the increased openness to new business management strategies in a COVID 19 world will assist the digital revolution. The National Freight Data Hub is a fantastic first step and I hope they are able to answer the tricky question ‘why bother when the current system mostly works’?

And what changes do you think will happen in transport post-pandemic?

If you consider the rapid shift in business operations and long-lasting economic impact the pandemic has caused it is hard not to think some supply chains will be irreversibly altered. For example, the decline in hospitality industry services will redirect agricultural supply chains which previously transited through the Brisbane market to restaurants to other opportunities. The need for just in time inventory might be reconsidered and potentially this will provide opportunities for more freight on rail.

After a few months of experiencing the benefits of virtual meetings it is hard to imagine domestic travel for face-to-face meetings will resume to the same level as before. Why waste a day for an hour meeting? They will still happen, but less frequently.

It is likely that all “nice to have” capital expenditure will be deferred. Any previous thoughts of purchasing new electric vehicles will vanish when the recession bites. Equally it will be difficult for the government to introduce alternatives to road user charging for freight carriers in a depressed economy and potentially other difficult policy decisions will also be put on the back burner.

All transport sectors will benefit from the increase in infrastructure spending and the demise in the back in black policy rhetoric which constrained Australian development. I will leave it to the economists to work out how we ultimately pay for all this spending and return the economy to a new normal.

Like this interview? Click here to see the rest of our interviews about the effects of COVID-19 on the transport sector.

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