Freight Through COVID-19

Key messages

  • Apart from disruptions in the first quarter, aggregate freight volumes in Australia – both domestic and international – appear to have experienced relatively little impact from the COVID-19 pandemic. This is in contrast to passenger movements, which have been significantly reduced by border closures and by lockdowns in some states.
  • The COVID-19 response increased the demand for short term data on freight movements to monitor the performance of the economy and supply chains. Some of the data covered here provides a shorter term picture of freight performance than what would be provided by more traditional long term data series on freight.

Road freight

While passenger travel, both short distance and long distance, was heavily curtailed through Australia’s COVID-19 response, freight movements were generally stable or in some cases slightly increased. This was shown in a number of data sources that were available through the period.

Data on freeway use in Sydney from Transurban shows that COVID-19 movement restrictions impacted car movements more than truck movements.

  • The average daily car trips on the Sydney M4 and M7 toll roads fell by about 40 per cent to the end of March, whereas daily truck trips declined by just seven per cent. Changes on the M4 and M7 are illustrative of changes on all Sydney toll roads.
  • By July, truck volumes had returned to normal levels.
Average number of trips on the M4 and M7 toll roads in Sydney, December 2019 to July 2020

Two graphs depicting the average trips taken between December 2019 to July 2020 for cars and trucks on major roads throughout Sydney. There is a sharp decline for the average daily trips for cars between March and mid-April, for trucks this is also seen but comparatively less, with an average of 50 compared to 30.

Data collected by BITRE from truck telematics also suggests that truck vehicle kilometres fell slightly during the April lockdown period, but not by the same magnitude as passenger travel.

  • BITRE analysis of freight companies’ telematics data shows that the impacts of COVID-19 restrictions have been relatively consistent across the all states.
  • The period from mid-March to mid-April saw declines in national truck vehicle kilometres travelled (vkt) of 20 per cent from the week starting Sunday 15 March to the week starting Sunday 12 April (Easter Sunday). The following week saw levels rise to within 10 per cent of the mid-March levels. Sparse data from 2019 also saw a decline in April, which suggests the decline may be seasonal variation unrelated to COVID-19 restrictions.

Freight vehicles also experienced a reduction in congestion on roads due to lower passenger traffic. BITRE’s GPS truck activity sample data shows AM peak period average truck speeds on the Western Highway (Melbourne) were much higher in Week 13 (23-29 March), in comparison with Week 9 (24 February-1 March). The following charts show estimated truck travel times (median and 1st and 3rd quartiles) along selected roads by time of day. From top to bottom, the roads are located in Sydney, Melbourne, Perth and Brisbane.

  • From left to right the panels show average weekly results during the quieter summer holiday period, an ordinary week prior to the COVID-19 outbreak and a week with stringent movement restrictions.
  • On the Sydney, Melbourne and Perth roads, the average travel time for trucks during the morning and afternoon peaks is lower in the week ending 26 April than in the week ending 1 March and are similar to those experienced during the summer holiday period.

Travel time reliability (measured as the distance between the 1st and 3rd quartile) during the w/e 26 April is also similar or better than that experienced during the summer holiday period.

  • These three roads ordinarily see significant volumes of both freight and commuter traffic.
  • The Port Brisbane to Gateway road does not carry much commuter traffic. As a consequence, travel times and reliability are similar in weeks with and without COVID-19 movement restrictions.

Time taken for trucks to traverse selected roads in Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane

Three separate graphs of time, in minutes, versus hour of the day of Pennant Hills Road for the periods of Jan 6th to Jan 12th, Feb 24th to March 1st and April 20th to April 26th. In the first graph, (Jan 6th to Jan 12th), the traffic is busiest throughout the morning (approximately 12mins) before slightly dropping around 3pm. The second graph, Feb 24th to March 1st has two peaks, one at approximately 8am, 15mins, and at 3.30pm, 16mins. The third graph, April 20th to April 26th doesn’t display any peaks throughout the day, with the average time taken on Pennant Hills Road at about 10mins.

Three separate graphs of time, in minutes, versus hour of the day for Hoddle Street and Punt Road for the periods of Jan 6th to Jan 12th, Feb 24th to March 1st and April 20th to April 26th. In the first graph (Jan 6th to Jan 12th), the traffic is busiest in the morning at around 8 am at 6 minutes before slightly dropping from 8am to 2pm, then picking back up and reaching 6.5 minutes. The second graph, Feb 24th to March 1st has two peaks, one at approximately 8am, 7.5mins, and at 5pm, 7.5mins. The third graph, April 20th to April 26th has a peak at around 1am at 6mins and another at 5pm of the same time, 6mins.

Three separate graphs of time, in minutes, versus hour of the day for Gateway Motorway for the periods of Jan 6th to Jan 12th, Feb 24th to March 1st and April 20th to April 26th. In the first graph, (Jan 6th to Jan 12th), the traffic is consistently busy at around 21mins, with slight increase between 3pm and 5pm of 22mins. The second graph, Feb 24th to March 1st has one peak, approximately 3pm, which is 25mins, the rest of the day is around 21mins. The third graph, April 20th to April 26th displays a slight peak around 4pm at around 22mins, the rest of day is around 20-21 mins.

The BITRE congestion data can also be viewed in an interactive map.

Some examples increases in domestic freight movements in particular sectors include:

  • In April 2020 Australia Post announced that it would retrain and deploy up to 2,000 motorbike posties to process or deliver parcels in vans to meet the rapid increase in demand.
  • Woolworths doubled its online home delivery capacity in April 2020.

Imports and exports of goods

In the short term, Australia’s goods exports do not appear to have been significantly reduced due to COVID-19. Maritime exports to China held up well in the March quarter 2020. Australia exported 218.5 million tonnes of goods worth $32.7 billion to China by sea in the March quarter 2020. This is up eight per cent by weight and nine per cent by value compared to exports in the March quarter 2019.

Imports fell significantly during the early stages of the pandemic, in February and March, but returned to more normal levels by April.

The Imports and Exports dashboard allows users to view these trends in more detail.

During 2020, the value of goods imports did not fall significantly. In April, goods imports equalled the five year April average. March imports were three per cent higher than the five year average, and February imports three per cent lower than the five year average. China largely accounts for the February result. Australia only imported 4.0 million tonnes of goods worth $12.8 billion by sea from China in the March quarter 2020. This represents a decline of 16 per cent by value and nine per cent by weight compared to the March quarter 2019. Imports from China fall significantly in February or March every year, but the fall in 2020 was larger and longer due to production disruptions.

After staying relatively low in March, imports from China rose more than 50 per cent in April, to 40 per cent above the five-year average.

Imports to Australia by commodity

This graph depicts money, in billions, over the period of December 2016 to December 2020, separated into 6-month increments. The top line shows China imports to Australia, with around $5 – $8 billion worth of imports, this has trended upwards since December of 2016 and peaks every year at December. The second top performing region is the EU28, no notable trends are seen, and it has been consistent of around 4.5 billion to 5 billion over the last 4 years. The third line depicts the United States, which has maintained a consistent import value of around 3 billion, apart from several peaks from December 2019 to December 2020, topping at around 4 billion.

The same pattern is shown in data on ship arrivals. The lockdown in China caused a significant drop in container carriers arriving directly from China during February and March 2020. However, since then container shipping from China has largely returned to pre-pandemic levels.

Over the first half of 2020, the number of unique ships calling directly from China was down 12 per cent compared to the first half of 2019. By the end of April, container ship arrivals were similar to the equivalent week in 2019.

The container ship arrivals from Other East Asia, South East Asia, and Other Oceania did not show the obvious sharp drop that container carriers directly from China showed. However preliminary data shows that the number of unique container ship arrivals from Other East Asia, South East Asia and Other Oceania in the first half of 2020 were down 11 per cent, 12 per cent and one per cent respectively, compared to the first half of 2019.

Container ship arrivals to Australia by region, 2019 and 2020

Container carrier arrivals by origin versus 3 week increments for 2019 and 2020. The top line is South East Asia, with arrivals starting at 40, 000 and progressing to just over 50, 000. The second line is of China, starting at around 33,000, dipping in March 2020 at 15,000 then increasing to 30,000. The third line is Other Oceania, starting at 23,000, increasing to 30,000 in May and again in August, finishing at 15,000. The fourth line is Other East Asia, starting at 12,500, maintaining this number until late February with a slight drop of just under 10,00, then finishing the year at 15,500. The EU, UK, North America and Middle East have all maintained a container carrier arrivals by origin of 0.

In August 2020, Port Botany recorded an increase of 18 per cent in twenty-foot equivalent unit (TEU) trade compared to August last year.

  • As well as general trade being maintained, there were sharp increases in imports of particular products relating to the COVID-19 response. Between February and August 2020, imports for computer monitors increased by 56 per cent, medical equipment by 22 per cent, food and beverage by eight per cent, chemical imports increased 26 per cent, and disinfectant imports increased 32 per cent.
  • Imports of construction materials such as steel, stone, glass, machinery and chemicals have increased significantly compared to last year.

The Container Counts dashboard allows users to view these trends in more detail.


In contrast to maritime trade, domestic and export air freight volumes declined during the COVID-19 period with reductions in passenger flights. Australia’s April 2020 domestic air freight volumes were nearly 30 per cent below its April 2019 volumes, with exports 40 per cent lower.

  • Melbourne, the city carrying the largest air freight volumes at 7,500 tonnes experienced the smallest decline relative to April 2019 at 21 per cent. Whereas, Perth saw its air freight volumes plummet by more than half from 4,800 to 2,300 tonnes.
  • Air freight exports are dominated by agricultural goods and processed food. In April 2020, they comprised 16,000 tonnes of the 22,000 tonnes exported. The volume of vegetable products and processed food and beverages air freighted in April 2020 was more than 50 per cent lower than the April 2019 volume. In contrast, the decline in animal products was far smaller.
  • Although the volume of goods air freighted to China has declined significantly during 2020, the country remains our largest market.

Domestic Air Freight

Index versus time between November 2018 to November 2020, with 6 month increments for Adelaide, Brisbane, Melbourne, Perth and Sydney. All major cities start at an index of 100 for November 2018 and oscillate between 80 and 100 up until November 2019. Around March 2020 there is a sharp decline for all cities, the index drops to around 40. From May to November the index improves but it doesn’t regain a 100 index.

Supply chain resilience

Australia is reliant on imports for some of the medical equipment and products needed in response to COVID-19. The graph below shows the risk associated with access to selected products. A risk index of 0 is no risk whereas a risk index of 1 reflects an extreme risk to the supply chain. International transport networks will affect the risk index but global demand is also a key factor. For example, when the number of COVID-19 cases globally is high, demand for these goods is high and consequently the risk index is high.

The improvement in the risk index in some commodities from July 2020 reflects improvements in the handling of COVID-19 in many countries including the Philippines and Hungary.

Supply chain risk index July and December 2020

Medical goods trade-risk index, 0 being no current risk and 1 is an extreme risk for July 2020 and December 2020. From highest to lowest risk; alcohol solution, vaccines, medicaments, syringes, swab and viral medium transport, test kits, soap, ventilators, CpaP, BiPap, oxygen, sterilisers, disinfectant, medical and surgical furniture.