A wine rack on rails? UK businesses are looking for solutions to shortages.


TILBURY, England – It’s called the ‘wine train’, and every weekend it leaves the port of Tilbury, east London, on a 100 mile journey to a depot in central London. ‘England. It looks pretty much like any other freight train, but it carries an unusual cargo: nearly 650,000 bottles of wine.

This 32-car, 1,600-foot-long traveling wine rack is the latest, and one of the most creative, response to the supply shortages that have plagued Britain and raised government concerns over disruptions to Christmas vacation.

On Saturday evening, in biting winds and rain, a small team of workers used giant machines to lift heavy containers full of wine into place before the last departure. Working under spotlights, they carefully maneuvered the cargo arriving by boat on the train bound for a terminal in Daventry from where it will be distributed to some of the country’s major supermarkets.

The wine train has been running from this busy port for about a month, reducing reliance on truck drivers, who were rare in Britain, and ensuring that Britons will have at least a decent supply of alcohol during the holidays.

But two months after gas and food shortages caused chills of anxiety across the country, Britain continues to face challenges in its supply chain. A shortage of truck drivers, combined with global shipping delays, product shortages, the pandemic and Brexit restrictions, has left some supermarket shelves bare and retailers have warned that not all Christmas presents will be available.

Concerns about the holiday season were only compounded by the discovery of three cases of the new variant of the coronavirus in Britain. Prime Minister Boris Johnson said on Saturday that masks would be mandatory in shops and on public transport and that travelers arriving from abroad would face new rules. But he said he was convinced Christmas would be “considerably better” than last year.

Businesses, including toy stores, cafes and butcher shops, say they are understaffed, and about seven in ten report differences in food purchases, including finding less variety in stores, data shows government authorities published last week. Shortages are disparate and random across the country, adding to the guesswork.

On Wednesday, the Cold Chain Federation, which represents companies that store and distribute frozen food, warned consumers may have fewer choices this Christmas.

Amid the continuing disruption, the government says it is determined to ‘save Christmas’ – as some UK newspapers have put it. Senior minister Stephen Barclay assured his colleagues at a cabinet meeting on Tuesday that there would be enough turkeys for the festive dinners. It was in doubt just a few weeks ago, when farmers warned of shortages.

“Essentially, the problems continue unabated, and while they’ve faded from the headlines, that doesn’t mean things are getting better,” said Ian Wright, chief executive of the Food and Drink Federation, a group that represents more than 800 companies in the sector.

He said his members were used to 97% of their orders arriving on time, but now a fifth of items won’t appear as expected – and which ones will run out are guesswork, he said.

Richard Wilding, professor of supply chain management at Cranfield University in England, used American military terminology to describe the challenges facing British businesses.

“Things are very VUCA, right now,” he said, using an acronym that means volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous. He cited the pandemic, workforce issues and overseas lockdowns – events that, like a rock landing in a pond, can cause ripples around the world.

As for the impact of Brexit, Mr Wilding described it as ‘the icing on a very bad pie’ as it caused further disruption just as the pandemic accelerated the transition to the digital economy, exerting a new pressure on supply chains.

Patrick Adom, the founder of Very Puzzled, which sells puzzles with maps and other illustrations from Africa and India, said that this year he only shipped 200 products to stores and customers from the European Union; that’s down from around 2,000 a year ago, when Britain was still in the bloc.

The global shortage of shipping containers, Mr Adom said, has caused the cost of sending the jigsaw puzzles to be sent from the factory in China, where they are made, to Britain by 30-40%, compared to the beginning. from 2020. Even after the products have arrived. in Britain, their subsequent trips were delayed due to lack of truck drivers and fuel shortages, he said. He added that Brexit had also resulted in higher export fees and increased administrative hassle.

“Just as you get into your rhythm, new challenges arise,” Mr. Adom said, adding, “It’s been a real storm, basically. “

At After Noah, a north London furniture and toy store, Matthew Crawford, the manager, said he was forced to order almost double the usual stock ahead of Christmas to make up for delivery delays. The prices are higher, but the company has absorbed them rather than passed them on to customers due to stiff competition from online retailers, he said.

“Almost everyone we know has a hard time getting things into the country,” Crawford noted.

And the bureaucracy can be overwhelming, Crawford added. When imported items arrive in UK ports from the European Union, he now has to identify the individual items, along with the materials they are made of, with the UK government. Details such as the type of icing used on the mugs will cause tariffs to change, he said.

Mr Crawford said After Noah also struggled to recruit workers for the first time in 31 years, a challenge he attributed to Brexit and the desire of EU workers to be closer to their families during the pandemic.

The government has offered short-term solutions for certain sectors to ensure that the shortages do not disrupt the Christmas celebrations. In September, for example, it made 5,500 short-term visas available to poultry workers in the EU, trying to make sure turkeys were on the Christmas table. More than 2,500 workers have arrived, according to the British Poultry Council, an occupational group.

Ranjit Singh Boparan, owner of turkey farmer Bernard Matthews, said up to 900 seasonal workers, mostly from Eastern European countries, have joined the company in recent weeks to work at its processing facilities. ‘East Anglia.

“We are on track to close the job gap for the massive increases in volume we are getting during this time of year,” he said in a statement released last week. While praising the short-term visa plan, he urged the government to issue visas for longer periods. “The workforce, as a key structural challenge for our industry, is there 12 months a year, and it’s a challenge that is not going to go away,” he said.

Not all food producers have been so pleased with the government’s response. Members of the British Meat Processors Association are “increasingly desperate,” said Jon Hare, spokesperson for the group, which represents most of the companies working in the UK meat industry.

“On the contrary, the situation has worsened,” Hare said, adding that competitive offerings from other sectors of the food and hospitality industry have made it difficult to retain employees.

Wine distributors aren’t the only companies getting creative in making sure their products reach customers in time for the holiday season. A supermarket chain, Tesco, has started using a train service from Valencia, Spain, through France, to Barking, near London, to transport lettuce, fruits and vegetables.

Tesco is also carrying supplies on the giant wine train. And Freightliner, the company that operates the train, said in a statement it was receiving more requests to move freight by rail – due to the shortage of truckers and the desire to decarbonize freight transportation.

Freightliner suggested that weekly deliveries on the wine train – the cargo of which takes several hours to load – had yet to meet demand during the holiday season.

“We are looking to increase the frequency of this service on a daily basis,” the company said.


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