Ask any operator about three of the main issues which constrain productivity in their business and they will tell you what they are, access, access and access. Diesel News looks at access discussions past and present and whether we can expect any realistic change.
The transport industry is now entering a period of great potential in terms of change, change which has been a long time coming. The Transport Ministers of Australia have asked the National Transport Commission (NTC) to lead the review of the Heavy Vehicle National Law (HVNL) in a process of consultation with stakeholders.
One of the most important aspects of this review is the stated desire of the Ministers’ committee to get the NTC to start from a clean sheet of paper solution, getting rid of the past issues and roadblocks.
The statements made by NTC recognise that the current law is not best practice and openly admits it’s outdated, complex, long, prescriptive and does not support road safety outcomes. On the review process website it states, “We are going back to basics to review the law from first principles.”
Five simple aims have been identified by the review, to improve safety for all road users, support increased economic productivity and innovation, simplify administration and enforcement of the law, support the use of new technologies and methods of operation, and provide flexible, outcome-focused compliance options. This is a set of aims with which no-one working with road transport could argue.
The review will be wide ranging with eight topics on which a discussion paper has been released and a consultation period is in process. One of the most important issues identified is that of access, a subject which has been front and centre of discussions on the improvement of productivity in trucking forever and a day.
Highly prescriptive state laws had restricted the growth of the trucking industry when the pioneers of road transport were breaking new ground after World War II. There was an improvement in the standard of living of the general population at that time and one of the contributory factors had been the freeing up of road transport to be able to compete with state-owned rail operations.
One major contributor to the rapid growth of the interstate freight transport industry, opening up access all around Australia, had been the Hughes and Vale v NSW case, back in 1954. As a result of the landmark decision taken by the High Court of Australia in this case, road transport operators had been given permission to trade freely across state borders.
Over time, the restrictions were further eased as GCM allowances crept forward and speed limits increased, but the wide variations in rules across borders continued to create issues.
By the early nineties progress had reached a tipping point, real change was needed to cope with an economy coming out of the ‘recession we had to have’. On March 12, 1991, the then Prime Minister, Bob Hawke issued a parliamentary statement called, ‘Building a Competitive Australia’ about getting the economy going.
“In telecommunications, in aviation, in road and rail transport, in removing through national uniform regulations the requirement for business to meet six or seven different
standards, we are achieving fundamental gains in efficiency,” said Hawke.
Many in the trucking industry are still waiting.
It was around this time that some major steps occurred in the development of B-doubles. Initially limited to just 23 metres long, these were much more productive trucks and were allowed to travel under permit on prescribed routes. By the mid 90s, 25 meters long combinations were able to get on the road and, after a prolonged period of lobbying the 26 metre B double came into existence with a trailer length restriction allowing for larger cabins and improved driver comfort.
Over time, the permit requirements for B-doubles and access issues became clearer as a clearly defined B-double network emerged. It was the existence of a consistently regulated and as of right access for these higher productivity trucks which led to the explosion in the number of B-doubles on our highways. This enabled the trucking industry to cope with a fast-growing freight task during the period of a driver shortage.
The change in regulations to allow 26 metre B-doubles, in 2004, was the last change in prescriptive truck regulations, allowing greater access for high productivity vehicles to the Australian road network. Ever since that time, the only way to get an even higher productivity vehicle on the road has been through the Performance Based Standards (PBS) process.
The PBS scheme had been touted as the ongoing solution to the ever-increasing need for improved productivity as ongoing economic growth drove an exponential growth in the freight task on our roads. Unfortunately, even though truck designers and operators came up with many and varied high productivity vehicles to improve efficiency, a recalcitrant, antiquated and restrictive access regime across the country severely limited the ability of PBS to improve road transport efficiency.
“In the late 1980s, longer semi-trailers and B-doubles were allowed to operate on limited access arrangements in every State and Territory,” says Gary Mahon, Queensland Trucking Association CEO and a member of the Expert Panel appointed by NTC to guide the review. “It was not until national action occurred that much wider application was adopted that derived significant efficiency benefits.
“Today, we have similar arrangements for PBS where they operate in limited arrangements within their state. All levels of government need to champion wider adoption across a national network to deliver a step change for road freight efficiency. The circumstances of the late 1980s cannot continue to be repeated. It is unacceptable for déjà vu all over again.
“We are a vast country and highly decentralised with a relatively low population. Transport costs will always be a challenge, but we are a culture of ingenuity and resilience. We cannot continue with our inefficiencies being such a handbrake on our economic performance. We are an internationally facing economy and an efficient road freight sector is a key ingredient to prosperity. Efficiency needs to be re-energised in road freight as regulation limits remain stuck on a 1990s clock.”