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Waiting for the Big Bang

The trucking industry may be sitting around waiting for the big bang, when all of the proposed reforms come together and we enter into some form of nirvana and all of our petty problems have gone away. They are in for a long wait.


This is the real world, it is not a single problem solving solution we are going to get, but, hopefully a process of changing the environment in which we work to improve the situation to move slowly towards consistent regulatory enforcement, improving productivity outcomes and an overall improvement in safety outcomes.


Any progress is not going to happen on its own. The cumbersome government system we are dealing with is consistent in only one regard, its inconsistency. Those involved in the process need to have constant pressure pushing them in one direction just to make any sort of progress. They may understand the need for change and empathise with the trucking industry, but if we are not always vociferous about what we need to change, they do not have the ammunition to fight the fight for us.


At the same time, the other elements of supply chain, who we deal with as suppliers, clients or partners, are in the game to improve their outcomes not ours. These are often large powerful corporations which are used to calling the shots.


A good example of how these entities think is the imposition by the stevedores of charges to trucking companies who are providing a service to them by hauling containers in and out of the shipping terminals. Another is the supermarket chains who are endlessly demanding of their transport suppliers, while cutting rates and playing firms off against each other, with minimal accountability.


At the same time, the vast majority of transport operations have a similar attitude to how they want to do business. They want to make money, but they also want to do it right and safely. This desire is often compromised by the pressures from both customers and regulators muddying the waters for them.


What do these large entities who are creating these issues for us understand? They understand strength and power. The trucking industry is as diverse as it is possible to be so, even though we have common problems, we do not come up with common solutions. However, the causes of our problems will not move if they are getting a series of diverse mixed messages.


The only thing that will keep up the pressure on both government and corporates is if we are all talking the same language. They need to hear the same basic message every time they interact with trucking. If the message is repeated enough times, it might get through to the real decision makers.


That’s how to do it. Now, all we need to do is work out what the message should be…


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Get Out and Shout

It’s time more people in the trucking industry decided to get out and shout about what is wrong with the world the trucking industry has to live in.


There is no room for shrinking violets, there are big decisions to be made and if the core of trucking doesn’t get its point across, someone else will.


This week the Australian Trucking Association (ATA) is calling out for people to make their opinions known at the upcoming ATA Conference in Darwin. The discussion in hand is the Territory’s trucking future and a rare opportunity for trucking people in a far-flung corner of our land to give the people at the top a flavour of what life is like for them and how it can be improved.


Trucking folk are not normally the type to get up and have a rant in a public forum like this, but maybe they should? Most people in the industry are publicity shy and unwilling to put their stronger feelings out there.


Instead, we sit and think conferences like Trucking Australia, or our local state events, are for the top end of town and the politicians. We allow problems to continue unchecked and remain frustrated at the lack of action.


It must also be said the representatives of governments and government agencies have been difficult to access from the small operator’s point of view. The industry associations, representing these folk have also been remiss in getting out there and really connecting with people who feel disenfranchised.


This has led to a massive divide between those in the know, whose feedback is listened to, and the great-unwashed masses in the trucking game who don’t put their head up above the parapet.


This year has seen a couple of organisations make a genuine effort to get the message out to people who are not normally involved, plus bring the feedback gained back into the policy development process.


The two exceptions have been the NHVR, with its ever-growing roadshow, going around the country trying to explain exactly what the changes to chain of responsibility rules mean for the truckie out on the road.


The second is NatRoad, who has realised it needs to get back in touch with its real grassroots. The history of the organisation is all about the impetus coming from the grassroots getting passed on up to direct communication with the government authorities. The series of forums going around the country should help the association become small fleet trucking’s true representative, like it has been in the past.


So, there is hope, but it still wouldn’t do any harm, if the vast majority of the trucking industry, who do keep their own counsel, got out there and shouted from the rooftops every now and then.


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Solving The EWD Riddle

The Australian trucking industry needs someone to solve the EWD riddle. Every time a trucking operator wants to get over yet another regulatory hurdle, they have to put another black box in the cabin.


In many ways this has been a useful development for the trucking industry, with a large number of companies developing black boxes to fit in to truck cabins, customised to the needs of the particular application. These electronics suppliers are flexible and able to adapt their systems to the exact needs of the operation and pull down the data the business needs to be safe and productive.


Most of the kinds of tasks these black boxes are expected to complete have a direct bearing on the productivity of the particular job, like IAP, reviewing driver performance or keeping operations in the loop. However, when it comes to the proposed Electric Work Diary system, this is going to have little effect on productivity.


Trucking operators may to be expected to fit yet another black box – at considerable expense – into the truck. This is going to add nothing to the business’ bottom line and, if they are a good operator now, nothing to their compliance performance. It will just be an imposition on the business with no quantifiable gain for the expense of introducing yet another box into the cabin.


Of course, it is very understandable – the authorities want any EWD system to be secure and are right to expect it to be so. The question has to be one which came up in several chats I had with people at the Brisbane Truck Show last week – does it have to be another expensive black box?


Surely, just about every truck driver in Australia has a smartphone in their pocket, or sitting on the dash. Why can’t we record our hours and prove our compliance to fatigue rules with an app? It is a regulatory requirement, but we need to keep it simple, stupid.


It looks like the powers that be will be making it possible for the supplier of your current black box to be able to include an EWD in the hardware, but this will be incumbent on whether the box includes security measures to satisfy the regulators. Simply tagging on will not be sufficient, even a smart-chipped driving licence can be passed from driver to driver.


Last week I was looking at a smartphone-based telematics system which has integrated facial recognition and thumbprints into the logging on procedure. If a small player in the global electronics game can come up with a solution which is accessible to everyone, surely a first world government agency can get it together.


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People Power

Walking around the Brisbane Truck Show reminds me just how much the trucking industry is about the people. It’s not about the trucks, or the trailers, or the goods being transported, it’s about the people. There are plenty of characters to meet up with milling around the trucks, all of whom have a story to tell, usually slightly modified from last time you heard it.

Looking in from the outside, it probably appears to be about a lot of equipment and a lot of business. Of course, these are vital elements to a trucking operation, good relationships don’t pay the bills, but getting the goods shifted safely and getting paid for it, does.

Then there’s the trucks themselves. Many from outside the industry are intimidated by the sheer size of a truck, from the driver’s seat of their car. The trucks feel even bigger when you stand under or next to them on a display stand. They are great big bit of very expensive metal, which provoke joy in the truckie’s mind and fear in the car driver.

Trucking people also tend to have some pretty robust conversations, there’s very little beating around the bush out on the road, on the loading bay and, also, on the truck stand. Truckies aren’t afraid to ask the dumb questions and get stuck into the answer, if it sounds a little hollow. The way people within the industry talk to each other would probably not go down too well in other workplaces. There’s a robust culture, to put it lightly.

All of this is evident, when walking the halls at the Brisbane Truck Show. The crowd move through the trucks meeting old friends and catching up on everything which has happened since the last show, or acknowledging those we know a little less well.

As someone who started driving in road transport in 1977, this feels like home. This is my tribe and I am stuck with them, whether I like it or not. We talk the same language and come at many issues from a similar perspective. Of course, there is room for a diversity of opinion, but much of this diversity comes from a different interpretation of a set of core values just about everyone involved with trucking can understand.

If the industry has a common failing, it is in being unable to articulate these ideas and values to those outside the tent. Those we deal with, be it the car driving public, the roadside enforcement, consignors and consignees, or whoever, are often bemused or angered by our unexplained actions.

The trucking industry can get over these self-constructed obstacles when needed. This was evident when the industry as a whole got together in the face of the unfair RSRT ruling and had a concise and articulate debate with the rest of society.

People power is there, and very present at events like the Brisbane Truck Show, we just need to work within this culture to get the best out of it, and use it properly.

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No Roadside Enforcement

As a result of an industrial dispute there will be no roadside enforcement next week. Unfortunately, this news comes out of Poland – we Australians are not getting a holiday from the rules any time soon. The strike is a result of an ongoing pay dispute.


I would suggest, if the enforcement officers have been disgruntled for some time, the poor truckies getting pulled up at the side of the road on their way to Warsaw would have copped a few unnecessary fines after coming across inspectors in a bad mood about their wages.


As an industry we have a problematic relationship with those who are posted on our highways to make sure we are all doing the right thing. This is not just an Aussie thing, it is universal. Having driven professionally in Western Europe and Australia, I can say the issues are commonplace. The only thing which changes is the name of the offence and the currency the fine has to be paid in.


Why are we so resentful of the representatives of the ‘powers that be’ going over our trucks and records with a fine toothcomb? It is hard to get to the core of the issue. Is it because we are all regular lawbreakers afraid of getting caught? No it is not.


One of the issues at the heart of the problem is the fact the vast majority of those on the road are doing the right thing and should be able to go into a check knowing they are squeaky clean. Unfortunately, this is not the case. Dot all of the Is and cross all of the Ts and you can still cop a fine for a minor mistake in recordkeeping or after an over-zealous loader puts a bit too much pudding on.


One contributing factor is our federal system, which has state-based transport authorities working for the state government’s benefit. The same issues apply to those truckies criss-crossing Europe, as they flit from country to country within the EU.


The next issue is the problem of ‘transit states’. Our transit state is New South Wales. An overwhelming majority of the freight moved on roads in Australia has to pass through NSW at some point. Quite often the state’s economy will benefit little from the passing of the goods from, for example, South Australia to Queensland, just a bit of road wear.


As a result the attitude seems to have developed – as is certainly perceived to be the case by many truckies – of getting something out of these truckies passing through, even if it is the odd fine.


The parallel with Europe is again very clear. A lot of road freight in Europe has to pass through France, Germany, and quite often Poland. French authorities have developed the art of pinging truck drivers for small offences for small fines to the point where it is widely regarded as a revenue-raising tactic.


Similarly, French customs will set up shop on the roadside knowing they will be able to catch enough offenders who are carrying untaxed fuel, or too many bottles of spirits or cartons of cigarettes across borders to justify the operation.


Germany uses road charging to top up its coffers, but did use fuel excise fines to do the job for many years. Poland goes through a similar process to get some revenue from passing trucks. A revenue stream which will be curtailed when the strike is in force.


Do Australian roadside enforcement stop us to make money? No, of course not, but the perception is there. This has grown over the years as drivers have worked hard to get everything about their truck and records right, only to get a fine for something seemingly insignificant. Will the introduction of a national enforcement operation solve this issue? Let’s hope so.

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Good News Bad News

Like all Federal Budgets, when it comes to the trucking industry it’s a bit of good news/bad news. Our elected government ‘giveth with one hand and taketh away with another’, usually in equal measures. This year seems to have been a little less painful than most.


The big ticket item is not about trucks at all. The commitment to the Inland Rail between Melbourne and Brisbane is all about putting money into the rail industry’s agenda. However, the step-change in productivity it will provide will feed into economic growth. What does economic growth mean? A lot more truck movements all over the country.


Of course, a lot more truck movements means a lot more infrastructure capable of handling the extra trucking operations will be necessary. There is some good news on this front with money going into Roads to Recovery, Black Spot, Heavy Vehicle Safety and Productivity and Bridges Renewal. Whether this is enough is debatable, but it is something.


Also on the agenda from Scott Morrison is some good news for small businesses, and we know the trucking industry is composed – to a large degree – by small businesses. The extension of the immediate tax write-down for asset purchases up to $20,000 is good news for small business, but twenty grand doesn’t get you much in the trucking game these days.


Again, Morrison’s forecast for the Australian GDP is good news. Despite an expected dip this year, the runes tell him the economy’s growth will increase next year and the year after that. Unfortunately, private investment in dwellings is expected to taper off considerably over the next three years.


This is not such good news for the trucking operators dealing with the construction industry. Luckily for them they are running flat chat at the moment, trying to keep up with a lot of infrastructure building taking place in places like Sydney and Melbourne. There’s also the Inland Rail coming on stream and a lot of that $8.4 billion will be going on transporting materials into and on sites.


There’s also $300 million to be spent on reducing red tape, something which trucking companies spend a lot of resources dealing with. However, this type of initiative usually sees the resources moving from one department to another to create a different kind of red tape somewhere else.


Can we sleep sounder in our beds tonight? Probably not. There is always a catch and trucking has got used to being at the back of the queue on many types of funding or initiatives. The feds normally just ignore us completely. Apparently, we don’t vote.


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Nightmare Scenario

It is the kind of situation many truck drivers dread, something which can play on the mind, the nightmare scenario of turning up as the first person at the scene of an accident. It is more likely to happen to a truckie than any other road user.

Read more

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Let Sleeping Dogs Lie

Sometimes we are told to not rock the boat, to let sleeping dogs lie, especially on the subject of fatigue and its connected issues in Australia. When addressing the problem, there are two very large elephants in the room we need to acknowledge and also take into account.


For some, fatigue is a problem in the trucking industry and one which must be addressed seriously. For others, fatigue regulations are an issue which must be addressed immediately. Then there are all of the other interest groups with their own barrel to push and they can use the fatigue issue to do so.


The two elephants in the room are our history and our geography. These two cannot be denied and are central to all of the ongoing battles we are having over fatigue.


A large proportion of the people working in the trucking industry are over 55, approaching 50 per cent. This means we started our careers in an industry in which fatigue laws were ineffective and ignored. There were rules in place, but enforcement was almost non-existent and log book fraud was the norm. Multiple log books were easy to access and a simple solution for the driver looking to drive where they wanted, when they wanted.


The culture into which we were introduced was unregulated and breaking the law was regarded as just a part of doing business and also a prerequisite for getting employment. This gave rise to two effects. New recruits had to learn how to break the rules to get the job done and the industry was more attractive to those who like to break the rules. Hence a bit of an outlaw culture existed then and still has its echoes in the industry today.


At the same time, and despite the efforts of a number of yard drivers who seem to be trying to shift their warehouse when slamming into the dock, the major cities in Australia are a long way apart. They are not going to get any closer.


The major centres are a shift, two shifts or, in the case of Perth, three plus apart. The roads are getting better, but the speed limit remains at 100 km/h with little likelihood of rising. Add the usual hassles with loading, unloading and paperwork to the equation and the kind of hours regime we now have in place is just doable, for many.


Now, all we have to do is mix these two factors together and we get a workforce brought up in disregard for the rules mixed with the demands of a modern economy wanting goods moved from capital A to capital B. The outcome is the situation we have today.


Truck drivers have been pushing the envelope of fatigue and how to cope with it for generations and there is a core level of knowledge about doing the right thing, recognising fatigue and resting when tired. To get this to work effectively, and it does for many, the prescriptive rules disrupt the natural rhythms the drivers have come to rely upon. These were developed by drivers trying to survive while being pushed way too hard by operators and their customers.


Perhaps the trucking industry should take a good hard look at itself and decide whether it wants to be part of the solution or not. At root, this is a cultural issue and they are the hardest to shift. You just have to look at the problems of the major footie codes, created by young men with lots of money and access to drink, drugs and women. They are throwing lots of money at it, but the problems continue.


For trucking, we first have to acknowledge the culture and then decide how to change it. Then we have to ensure we don’t throw the baby out with the bath water.



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Confusion Reigns

Looking around the trucking landscape, it is often difficult to think anything other than confusion reigns. As we seem to stagger from one minor crisis to the next there is never a clear way forward and there are a thousand different voices calling for the trucking world to head in one thousand different directions.

We do not suffer from misinformation, we are not being fed a line to suit someone else’s agenda. We are not starved of information, as the powers that be tell us each and every move they are going to make in the near future, but reserve the right to change direction in the future. It’s not even a matter of receiving mixed messages, it’s just a confusing array of information, supposition and lack of understanding.

The reason for this confusion is clear. we are part of the most diverse industry sector in the country. Not only are there segments divided by what we carry, but also by business model, business size, region, customer base, payment terms, contract – if any, the list goes on.

Not only do we not have a clear idea of who we are, neither does government. It does not have much of an idea of who it is talking to. The big multi-national players in the industry can afford to pay for the kind of lobbying which ensures decision makers are well aware of their position, needs and wants, and know if they are helping the big boys, or hindering them.

What about the rest of us? The RSRT crisis in early 2016 did show us how to get to the point where one message can get to the right people from the point of view of a large constituency in the trucking industry. At the time there were estimates of 30,000 to 50,000 owner drivers in Australia, we still don’t know.

Then there’s all of the players in between, all those mum and dad businesses who are happy with a few, or a few more, trucks and then those who have grown bigger than that into substantial family businesses. Then again, there are others who have grown to fulfil the needs of a customer or a community. These are all working in slightly different sectors, with their own issues.

If someone working for  a trucking company or running one were asked what they needed, they would answer from their specific point of view. Multiply that by 100,000 plus and you would get a spread of opinion, which would veer from one extreme to the other.

Similarly, when it comes to voting, very few of those engaged in the industry would decide which way there vote will be cast on trucking related issues. Why? Because no one has a clear idea on what trucking related issues look like.

In this confusion we have a few voices of rationality, working with some good intentions. Groups like the National Heavy Vehicle Regulator and the National Transport Commission are trying to work towards a workable solution to the myriad problems which face trucking.

That being said, we are still paying a road user charge which pays for more than we are getting. We still have enough variations in regulations across state borders to put a major impost on the productivity of trucking, and ultimately on the productivity of Australia.

How do they get away with it? Because there are no overarching issues on which we can all agree, just lots of small diversions from one single idea of how to change things to make it right. Maybe there is no over-arching issue because it’s going quite well for everyone. Maybe not. 

There is a way to get what we want and make it clear to the people at the top what trucking needs. To get it there needs to be real well-informed and very honest discussion to come to some sort of reality check and clarification of the issues. We need to be somewhere where consensus reigns.

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Fight Like You Mean It

We need to fight like you mean it. A few of the little issues which have popped up recently should remind everyone involved in the trucking industry just what our place is in the psyche of the Australian nation. Unfortunately, it’s not a very good place, if you are looking for fairness and people doing the right thing by you.

No, as an industry, people involved in road transport need to know they are quite a long way down the pecking order. Even the largest transport operators have to shout very loud to be heard, and then may still be completely ignored by governments or other big businesses.

The industry as a whole has to go cap in hand both to those who regulate the industry and to the major customers, who are big enough to generate the kind of revenue a big fleet needs to survive in the contemporary business environment.

Hold on a minute, there is a major industry sector which constitutes 8.6 per cent of Australia’s GDP and is being ignored by government? Yes, even though we are nearly a tenth of the economy, we appear to count for very little.

Unlike an industry like farming, trucking is not concentrated geographically in a particular region. The farming community and its environment is the core support for a major political party, the Nationals, who happen to be in a coalition with the Liberals, and in power.

Trucking is not concentrated anywhere particularly and its people are not part of any significant demographic sector. The nearest thing we have to a tribe is probably general small business, a group seen to miss out on consideration at just about every turn.

The only trucking group with any clout in Canberra is probably the Transport Workers Union, it is a player in Labor Party decision making. The TWU also has a problematic and often divergent relationship with those running trucking businesses, as we saw in the battle around the RSRT last year.

So, we have a trucking industry which has paid more than it should in road user charge for a number of years and nobody can do anything about it. Trucks are going to be banned from a wide range of vital routes in and around the Port of Melbourne and be forced onto a toll road at exorbitant rates, just to keep the voters in a couple of the city’s suburbs from voting out their local members.

At the same time as this is going on a major stevedoring company, part of a global giant, DP World is feeling a squeeze from its global clients on its finances. It needs to charge more to its customers but it decides this is not a good idea. Instead, it decides it will start charging its suppliers of transport services, the trucking companies, for picking up the containers it has unloaded from its customers’ ships.

The trucking industry is trying to make a big noise about this and has managed to get a delay in the imposition of these charges, but there seems to be an inevitability about the way the charges will come in. The big company will have been able to bully trucking into accepting just one of the many impositions it has to suffer.

The trucking industry will have to fight every step of the way to get any improvement in its circumstances. We do not have any chance of becoming electorally significant any time soon. The government will always be able to ignore road transport and get re-elected. Lindsay Fox has been giving it a red hot go in the media recently, but is he going to get a real reduction in the tolls trucks have to pay around Melbourne? I am not getting my hopes up.

Fight Like You Mean It