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Empty container storage throughout the city is filling up and large numbers of rail wagons are laden in sidings, in preparation for heading to Port Chalmers or further north.
KiwiRail reported an 18% increase in volumes for October, in total 130,402 tonnes of inbound and outbound freight, senior communications adviser Jenni Austin said.
"This year, we are certainly seeing more rail freight activity nationally than for the same time last year," she said.
KiwiRail is geared up to increase volumes during seasonal variations, through spring and summer and the build-up to Christmas, by operating a high-season train schedule and using longer, fuller trains. She said recent changes to port visits by international shipping lines had some impact on increasing rail use.
Port Otago chief executive Geoff Plunket said the port's peak export season, usually from December to May, was just starting and container movements were "slightly up" on a year ago, as Port Chalmers received some containers that would usually have gone through Timaru, which had recently dropped to two shipping lines.
He expected the peak of the season to be about February-March, when export meat joined dairy products and apple exports at the same time, which would be followed by timber exports, albeit more spread over the following months.
Empty containers were being stockpiled throughout the city in preparation for exporters' use, including the dairy trade.
A spokesman for freight forwarders Toll said the usual Dunedin Christmas peak had started almost three weeks earlier than expected, anecdotally, because retailers were placing orders earlier to stock shelves.
"It's being driven by retail competition, all for the Christmas and New Year sales," he said.
He estimated that compared with the quietest winter month, December freight forwarding volumes into Dunedin could be up 50% or more. The peak ends immediately after Christmas, with January one of the quieter months for Toll.