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Working Together For Mutual Benefit

When you talk to trucking operators who work in rural areas, they have a completely different attitude to competition than their counterparts in the big city, it’s all about working together for mutual benefit. In the metropolitan areas, in the capital cities, it is simply a matter of dog eat dog. No quarter is given, any competitive advantage is seized upon, flogged to death to try and drive the competition out of business.

In the big cities, the amount of work available is huge. Customers do not have any need to think about about loyalty to a particular trucking company, there are plenty more willing to come in and do the job cheaper, but not necessarily better.

This is also the home ground of the big boys, the national operators with enormous market power. They have deep pockets and if they pursue a particular transport task, they are going to get it, or get into a bidding war with another member of the big end of town.

This market environment has led to an extremely lean and mean trucking industry, which can, on occasion, push the envelope just a bit too far. In this kind of atmosphere, the smartest, but also the ruthless, rise to the top, no-one takes any prisoners.

Out in the rural areas the atmosphere is somewhat different. Out here, the trucking task is infinitely variable. Much of the basic work handled by the trucking operators relates back to the agriculture industry, in one way or another. This is also an area where rates are normally low, especially when you factor in the scarcity of good back loading.

The game is all about peaks and troughs. The weather has a lot to do with the prosperity, or otherwise, of each region. No rain, or rain at the wrong time, can turn the peak season into one where the trucking boss sits and looks out of the window at parked up trucks and trailers.

The best solution rural operators have come up with, so far, is all about working together. If a company geared up with enough equipment to cover all of the work it could get in a boom year, it will be running a lot of severely under-utilised equipment most of the time.

Last year’s harvest in Western Australia is a case in point. Record tonnages saw everyone working flat out and reaping the rewards. Trailer makers were snowed under with orders for new tippers, as a result. Nobody, no matter how big, was trying to get all of the tipper work, however. To do so would be a folly, this year’s rains are unlikely to repeat the good fortune.

Instead, the rural operators have to work out a way to ensure there is enough capacity in any particular area to handle those booms, without anyone getting overstretched and over-equipped. This is where co-operation comes in.

There needs to be a level of trust between competitors to get it to work out, but the mutual gains tend to ensure a certain level of honesty between competitors. When it’s all going off in one area and the transporters can’t cope, they can call in other operators from other areas to help out. They can do so, in the certain knowledge, a similar call will be made in the opposite direction when the tables are turned.

It is in this way the rural trucking industry can survive in these areas. Rates are low, if they weren’t the big boys would be in there. Operators watch farmers going bust every week because they have over capitalised. They don’t to make the same mistake and this drives them into a hybrid business model, part competition, part co-operative.

Of course, there are sharks everywhere and the system can often fall down when a word and a handshake are taken back. Overall though, it is testament to both a survival instinct and a nicer side to human nature, which makes this system work.

 

Remain Vigilant

Tackling the Big Issues

Here we are at the beginning of a New Year and we need to think about tackling the big issues, once again. It’s time to take stock and prepare to fight the good fight to keep the right agenda on the table for the trucking industry, at the same time as working to improve the image and standing of trucking in the general community.

Of course, we have perennial issues which will be with us forever. The whole area of safety and keeping people safe at work is a never ending challenge. It is one of those issues which needs constant attention and has the potential to go wrong at any point.

There is always resistance and a tendency among those involved at the ground level to believe the whole safety agenda has gone too far and hinders good work practices. People get frustrated and there is always a lot of talk about the company covering their backsides. This is true, they are, covering the company against the risk of litigation if anything goes wrong. This also has the useful side-effect of reducing injuries, not a bad result.

An ongoing issue which has made life hell for us in the industry is supposed to be diminishing in the future, but we will have to wait and see. The ridiculous inconsistencies in rules and enforcement between the states is slated to disappear when the National Heavy Vehicle Regulator get their collective feet under the table around the nation and genuinely call the shots, when it comes to running the roadside enforcement crews.

We should never underestimate the ability of individual state government, parliament, bureaucrats and others to throw the unexpected spanner in the works, just when the situation is improving. The NHVR seems to be in control of a process to get all of its ducks lined up over the next eighteen months, but the industry’s skepticism is born out of many frustrating years of promised reform getting derailed at the last moment.

The whole issue of remuneration is a sticky one. There are two polar opposites on this issue, but most of the trucking industry sits somewhere in between the two, often pulled in conflicting directions. At one side we have the Transport Workers Union and an ongoing safe rates campaign, coupling road safety with rates and driving.

On the other hand we have a transport industry dominated by a few massive operators, but populated by many thousands of smaller operators who have to be price-takers from the big boys. This leads to a situation where one side is holding down rates for a commercial reason, while the other side is driving up rates to get more of the task handled by the bigger, unionised fleets.

This issue will drag on and on, the TWU has the resources to fight every step of the way, while the big boys keep a low profile. The poor small operator bears the brunt of the issue and has little say in any outcome, little change expected there.

One issue which did get more attention last year, and hopefully will get even more in 2017, is driver perception. This is a very broad topic. On the one hand we are talking about the way truck drivers are perceived out on the road by other road users. It is also about the way drivers are treated within the industry, about getting some respect for their skills and commitment.

As the driver shortage continues and the average age of drivers increases, the smart operators are going to have to come up with more and better ways of making their drivers, working at the coal face, feel a bit more loved and have pride in their profession and abilities. This is going to be a long process, but we need to start making progress on the issue now.

 

Remain Vigilant

Remaining Positive

Well, we are into the New Year of 2017 and the team here at Diesel News is determined in its resolution of remaining positive. It’s important to maintain perspective and keep the optimism about future developments for the trucking industry going.

Of course, the chances of the situation going pear-shaped over the holiday period are quite low. The politicians are on their holidays and unable to sign off on anything affecting our industry. They seem to be too busy signing contracts to buy new apartments on the Gold Coast, it seems!

At the same time, the likes of A Current Affair and the rest of the anti-trucking media are beholden to produce feel good and positive stories for the festive season. Luckily, the daily news has had little content in it about major traffic accidents involving trucks, apart from the very unfortunate incident in which a driver was killed after being pulled over by the police.

So in the interests of remaining positive, Diesel News is looking to the future with a degree of good humour. Truck sales, reported elsewhere show a degree of optimism in the industry as a whole, which is stronger at the lighter end.

The legislators seem to be looking at truck-related legislation with a much more long term view than they have in the past. We need a lot less knee jerk reactions and a few more considered developments of policy. This seems to be the trend as the relationship between the National Transport Commission and the National Heavy Vehicle regulator remains strong.

At the same time the NHVR can be seen to be driving the bus a bit better than they have in the past. The realistic goals and long, but also realistic, timelines, with set agendas and proper consultation, seem to be making the State Transport Ministers a little less jumpy and less likely to react in a knee jerk fashion than they have in the past.

This may not be the case in Western Australia, where an ongoing battle continues to hot up around how freight is going to get from the Port of Fremantle to the rest of the state, without upsetting the local NIMBYs of Perth. Perhaps the lack of stability there can be explained by the decision by WA to reject the NHVR?

We may get a bit of controversy around the Chain of Responsibility, but when was COR anything but contentious? Perhaps when the first big fines are handed out to anyone who is not a transport company, we will be able to sleep soundly in our beds. At the moment, it is looking like other parties, up and down the chain, are waking up to their responsibilities, at last!

Remain Vigilant

Trying to Stay Positive

Next Year, we here at Diesel News will be trying to stay positive, despite evidence to the contrary. The only way to go into a New Year is to remain optimistic and work to make it a better year than the last.

This is a tough time of year in the trucking industry. Christmas can’t come soon enough as the pre-Christmas rush pushes so many operations to their limits. The hungry beast, which is consumer demand for goods at this time of year, is insatiable and wants new stock delivered right up to and through the holiday period.

With everyone in the operation pushed to the limit, trucking is trying to get everything delivered before the day and also trying to ensure as many people as possible get a decent Christmas break. I remember, myself, arriving home at 5.15 am on Christmas day, simply because the department which pressed the button to release an order early on Christmas Eve, decided to go out for festive drinks and forgot about my load.

After finally getting loaded in the evening and hitting the road for home, after three weeks away, I got into bed, closed my eyes and immediately got woken up by a seven year old and a five year old wanting to start opening presents. So many people working in trucking will have similar stories to tell, and worse.

As a result, this time of year is stressful and rushed, we are all fatigued. In this state, it’s difficult to get excited and optimistic about anything, apart from rest and recreation. However, we do have to look ahead and it is always better to go into the New Year with a bright outlook.

The situation is much better than last year. Although the penny hadn’t dropped for most people, the RSRT Determination and all of its consequences was already on the books, this week last year, and preparing to hit the owner drivers and small fleets hard in March. Those problems have gone away to a large extent, but the TWU is still chipping away at the issue, especially in NSW.

As a whole, 2016 has seen progress on many fronts, all of which should be of benefit to the trucking community. There is more access agreements in place, more PBS trucks on the road, the prospect of more consistency in roadside checks in view and some form of roadworthiness regime, we can all live with, on the cards.

On the wider scale, the lean times seem to be easing off a bit for many operators. The prolonged plateauing of economic activity is showing signs of an uptick in a number of areas. Heavy duty truck sales have increased in the last couple of months, a sure sign something is in the wind. We can also take heart from how the trucking industry pulled together to fight the RSRT and get a result.

So let’s hope all of our dreams come true, or, rather more pragmatically, progress is made for trucking in the coming twelve months. This just leaves me to say a Merry Christmas to you readers and, All the Best in the New Year!

Remain Vigilant

Coping With Congestion

This week I spent one day, coping with congestion, trying to get from A to B to C to D in Sydney with a truck, during a normal weekday. The day was also hot and the added heat from the frustration of working with these levels of never ending congestion, are enough for anyone to blow their top.

Luckily, for those around me, I did manage to keep my temper and not let the grinding traffic get to me. I was lucky, I did need to get from Ato B, but I was not on a tight schedule, the time pressures were simply self inflicted and not pressure from customers or consignees.

However, for many of the drivers of the trucks around me, who deal with this 24/7, the pressures would have inevitably been higher. There were definitely drivers in the same long queues to the interminable traffic lights, who were about to, or already had, blown a gasket.

There is clearly a need to bring the road infrastructure in the Sydney area up to the level where it can cope with the traffic now and into the future. Ironically, I was driving a concrete agitator, in a sector of the industry which is seeing a massive boom in Sydney. The increased number of trucks carting construction materials is part of the problem, making the congestion even worse than it should be.

And what is driving this boom in freight traffic across the city? Why, its supplying all of the major infrastructure projects, which are all underway across the city. There’s the North Connex, which will eventually mean trucks won’t have to sit in queues along the Pennant Hills Road. Then there’s the West Connex, which will eventually mean trucks won’t have to sit in queues along the Parramatta Road.

On top of this there’s the development of the airport, out at Badgerys Creek to the West of the city, with massive infrastructure changes around the whole region. When this finally opens, it will probably contribute to growing congestion on the West Connex, once it’s completed.

Yes, they continue to build massive capital projects to improve the infrastructure of the big cities, like Sydney. Melbourne looks like it might get a Ring Road, which actually is a Ring Road, if all of the stars are aligned, and many years too late.

Massive infrastructure projects aren’t enough, on their own. There needs to be a clear strategy developed by taking a broad view of the whole issue, which can identify ways to transcend this perennial problem.

Wasn’t Infrastructure Australia supposed to lead the way and bring some sanity to the situation? Instead, we revert to type and have individual state governments using infrastructure as a political pawn without any direction from a national standpoint.

Meanwhile, we, in the trucking industry, sit in interminable queues, burning diesel, getting frustrated and letting down the paying customer, with no end in sight. Productivity? Don’t even think about it!

 

Remain Vigilant

Five Star Trucking

The idea of a five star trucking system seems to have dropped off the agenda in the last year or so, after being a good idea for a couple of years before that. Instead, the focus has moved to ensuring roadworthy trucks and finding ways to incentivise trucking companies to have safe trucks on the road.

 

There seems to be two issues at play here. One, would suggest some form of trucking operation grading would be a good way to go, to concentrate the actions of the regulators on those who were not performing well and leaving the best performers to get on with running a trucking business.

 

Secondly, the intense concentration on the trucks being in excellent mechanical condition when they are heading down the highway means the trucks on our roads are in good order, but may not have a significant impact on road crash statistics.

 

I have been talking to a number of trucking operators in New Zealand in the past week or so and chatting about the five level grading truckies across the ditch are given by the road authorities. A five star rating means the trucking company is regarded as safe and receives fewer inspections and spot checks from enforcement. The system also tracks road offence rates. A few black marks can see an operator drop down a rung or two and get more attention from the powers that be.

 

Unfortunately, the scheme is not well tuned and for many operators it is possible to keep their nose clean and maintain five stars without being proactive about safety and safe procedures. At the other end of the spectrum, a very safety conscious small fleet can lose a high rating and get sent to the back of the class over one incident, for which it was not necessarily to blame.

 

The big fleets reckon the bar has been set too low and the compliance levels demanded by their corporate bosses, often overseas, are much higher. These higher standards are not rewarded by lower enforcement rates, when compared to fleets who are less compliant, but haven’t been caught. Many operators find the way they are graded to be unfair and fail to reflect their safety processes. The scheme is not regarded by many in the industry as advancing the cause of running a safe and productive operation.

 

The concentration on the truck being in good mechanical condition, which is the focus of the National Heavy Vehicle Regulator, is good PR. The industry is shown to be cleaning up its act and avoiding major accidents like the tanker fire in Lane Cove.

 

This is a noble aim, but unlikely to have much effect on the overall crash and fatality figures when trucks are involved. Figures compiled by NTI show mechanical failure to be at fault in just three per cent of crashes. Tyres are the mechanical problem in fifty per cent of those failures. Trucks in better mechanical condition are a tiny proportion of the vehicles causing accidents.

 

However, inappropriate speed is a major cause of accidents and a major killer on our roads. Highly compliant fleets with safe systems and practices, those who would get five stars in an effective grading system, are going to be the ones in which inappropriate speed is less of a problem. Lower accidents rates will inevitably result.

Remain Vigilant

Who Do You Think You Are?

A question for the trucking industry, who do you think you are? The answer is, you are not as important as you think. In fact, you are a group of people who should just keep your heads down and don’t bother putting it above the parapet.

 

A number of news items in the news this week show issues which are of great importance to trucks and trucking being ignored and the issues involved used as an excuse to run others’ agendas.

 

The first instance comes in the wake of a fantastic initiative by the stakeholders involved in the trucking industry and roads of Australia. As part of the National Local Government Roads and Transport Congress in Toowoomba, an event was held at the city’s show grounds, showcasing trucks involved in the Performance Based Standard scheme.

 

Organised by the Local Government Association and the National Heavy Vehicle Regulator, the demonstration saw trucks brought in from around the country to take part in the event. Road managers from all over Australia could watch innovative vehicles strut their stuff around the winding roads of the show grounds.

 

Operators of the trucks took them off the road in order to let the road managers of Australia see how well they perform on local roads. This is not an easy thing to do, these are working trucks and they need to make a dollar, but their owners are enthusiasts for PBS and are willing to forego revenue to further the cause of high productivity trucks.

 

Like a similar event held in Bundaberg earlier in the year, this proved useful for both the road managers and the NHVR, in smoothing the way for access decisions allowing the trucks onto new routes.

 

How was this reported in the local media? We are not talking about one local newspaper, but a swathe of titles owned by the APN Australian Regional Media Network across Queensland and New South Wales. The headline for all their stories was, ‘Monster Trucks Roar Into Town’ and the story began, ‘A demonstration of huge trucks that might never be seen in Toowoomba again’.

 

A sub-editor somewhere came up with a headline which did not reflect the story being told and also made a positive story about the trucking industry into a negative one. Yet again, the media fed the anti-truck sentiment it has engendered over the years.

 

At the same time, in NSW, there was a call by trucking industry representatives to end the discrimination against the trucking industry, by NSW, in which the state uses its point-to-point speed cameras to target trucks, but does not use the system to fine, or even warn, cars caught speeding.

 

This story turned into something else when the Sydney Morning Herald reported the number of fatalities which occurred on the stretches of road covered by these cameras to be 16. As of this point the story became one of getting rid of NSW Roads Minister, Duncan Gay, from the road safety portfolio, leading to the headline, ‘Duncan Gay should be stripped of responsibility for road safety’.

 

Again, trucks and their drivers are not important, but car drivers and their lives are.

Remain Vigilant

Will Road Rage Disappear In The Future?

Will Road Rage Disappear In The Future? One of the features of life on the road for truckies, and other road users, for the past twenty or so years, has been road rage. It seemed to come out of nowhere, all of a sudden drivers were jumping out of their vehicles and attacking others drivers by the side of the road, in retaliation for some perceived issue on the road.

My first experience was seeing a van driver screaming to a halt at traffic lights before running along the median strip to a car in front of him. He then proceeded to punch the closed driver’s window while screaming abuse at the driver inside. A few seconds later the lights turned green and the car sped off, as the enraged van driver took a kick at the rear wing of the offending car.

The shock of seeing and hearing such violence at 10.30am on a weekday brought me up with a start and made me look at my own attitudes. Many of us get angry and frustrated with other road users, due to their lack of consideration, or sheer stupidity, but our reactions are limited to the uttered oath and the occasional rude gesture. Road rage takes the level up quite a few notches and has put people in harms way.

One of the root causes of the phenomenon comes from drivers’ belief in their own ability to drive and that they are in full control of the vehicle. The modern car is designed to make drivers feel safe and secure, insulated from what is going on on the road around them.

Those driving trucks do not feel quite so in control. Yes, they are definitely better drivers and will have more driving experience, on average, but the truck will also remind them, more often, they are not in quite so much control as they would like. When a second trailer drifts, or the drives lose traction momentarily, they are reminded of the fact they are in forty-odd tonnes of metal travelling at 100 km/h.

For truck drivers the road rage comes more from the perceived inability of the car drivers around them to understand what travelling with trucks involves. The truck driver has little or no confidence in the car drivers’ belief in their own ability to drive. Cars are seen as a permanent ‘accident waiting to happen’.

The tension between drivers on the road seems to ramp up year-on-year, but there is light at the end of the tunnel. When surveyed, most car drivers would consider investing in an autonomous car, when they become available.

This would mean cars on the road would have built in systems, which know exactly what is going on around them and what’s round the next corner. The car or truck, itself, will anticipate any incident and either brake or avoid the issue. Vehicles will stop for red lights automatically and divert from the normal route to avoid frustrating congestion.

How long it will be before this new dawn of autonomous traffic will be with us is an open question. However, the experts tell us it only needs ten percent of the vehicles on the road to be using Intelligent Transport Systems before we start to see real improvements.

Will the brave new world of autonomy be all sweetness and light? The optimist in me can see a future of smiling truck drivers sitting at the lights reading a novel or playing a game on their ipad. The pessimist can see road ragers punching the LCD screen on the dash screaming, ‘****ing stupid machine!’

Remain Vigilant

Back to Being a Political Football

This week sees the trucking industry and its drivers back to being a political football, in a similar situation to the lead up to the election earlier in the year. Then as now sees the safety of drivers and others on the road being used to make political points diverting attention away from the real issue, safety.

It’s all about safety in trucking, and everyone in the industry knows it. The survival of all businesses involved depends upon good safety outcomes. There is no room for complacency on the subject and there is definitely no place for interested parties to use the issue of safety to be used as a stick to beat their perceived opponents.

This week’s stand-off is between the Australian Small Business and Family Enterprise Ombudsman and the Transport Workers Union. Each player has an agenda to push and each is using the issue of safety to attack the other.

“Rather than focus on the seriousness of the issue and be a part of the solution, the TWU seem determined to make road safety a political football,” said Kate Carnell, ASBFEO CEO, in a statement. “Safety on our roads is everyone’s responsibility; it is far too serious to be used as a way of scoring cheap political points.”

The TWU response was equally forthright and defensive.

“The Ombudsman Kate Carnell helped destroy a system that was aiming to stop the carnage on the roads by ensuring an end to pressure on drivers to speed, drive long hours, skip breaks and overload their vehicles,” said Tony Sheldon, TWU National Secretary. “The system also guaranteed drivers payment for work within 30 days. Ms Carnell then spent thousands of dollars of taxpayers’ money on a report trying to demonise that system. But it has failed because her report is utterly bogus.”

Yes, the Road Safety Remuneration Tribunal was unfair as it targeted one section of the industry, owner drivers, and created an unfair commercial disadvantage. Equally, getting stuck into the union is going to do nothing too get the issue of safety advanced on the roads of Australia, for the trucking industry.

The only approach which is going to get the job done is for a consensus to be reached and the entire industry, operators and drivers, big and small, can then move forward to ensure a fair and safe outcome. A safety conscious truck fleet works to improve the situation for all. It does not use the subject as a political battering ram, to score points and, as a result, obscure the issue.

 

Remain Vigilant

Melbourne Melting Pot

A major issue for the trucking industry is rearing its ugly head in the Melbourne Melting Pot which revolves around the routes in and out of the Port of Melbourne. Problems with the load carrying capacity of the Westgate Bridge is set to cause the whole, truck access though streets around the port, stew to boil up again, see tempers flare and a lot of emotive anti-truck slogans.

Issues caused by local residents in Yarraville, protesting about trucks going through their neighbourhood have been ongoing for many years. However, the whole thing had calmed down, to a certain extent, in recent times when VicRoads started to allow 77.5 tonne Super B-doubles and A-doubles to travel across the Westgate Bridge.

These higher productivity vehicles took some of the strain of moving the 8,000 plus containers which exit the port everyday. By allowing the heavier trucks onto the bridge, the number which travelled through Yarraville was controlled.

This reduction was needed as the pressure groups in the community had already got a curfew put in place. Trucks can only pass through areas like Francis Street between 6am and 8pm on weekdays, but not at school drop-off and pick-up times, so congestion was already an issue.

The whole schmozzle looks like it is going to set the trucking community against groups like the Maribynong Truck Action Group (MTAG) and will see protesters trying to stop trucks while the trucks simply hauling containers out of the port will be seen as provocative.

In fact, the problem here lies at the feet of the Victorian Government, and its short-sighted infrastructure policy. The heart of the issue likely to rekindle the fire is the fact the road engineers have decided the Westgate Bridge cannot take trucks heavier than 68.5 tonnes, B-doubles on HML, any more.

This bridge had $371 million in strengthening work carried out in 2011. Surely, the authorities knew the extension of Super Bs and A-doubles in the high productivity freight vehicles in the Victorian Government scheme were going to start using this essential freight route.

The Bolte Bridge, much newer than the Westgate, has been limited to 68.5 tonnes GCM as well. Were the VicRoads heads stuck so deeply in the sand they could not see a bigger freight transport task and higher truck GCMs coming.

Performance Based Standards and the Intelligent Access Program were already in development in order to create higher productivity trucks as the Bolte was being built and these heavier trucks were a reality when inadequate reinforcing was added to the Westgate.

Does this mean the MTAG are going to round on the Victorian Government and try to force them to take responsibility for skimping on infrastructure spending? No they are not. A typical message was put out by the group a couple of days ago on twitter, ‘This is the size of trucks on our residential streets now & they’re going to get bigger?! Seriously, how much more can this community take!’ It was accompanied by this picture:

Melbourne Melting Pot

Batten down the hatches it is going to be a rough ride! And the Victorian Government will be an onlooker tut-tutting about outrageous MTAG claims in the media, while granting them anti-truck concessions to keep favour in a volatile electorate.

At the same time, the truck ban lacks real credibility. Road engineers tell us the bridge can’t take the pressure caused by a 30 metre long vehicle weighing 75.5 tonnes using IAP to ensure no overloading. Meanwhile, the rules do not preclude the queueing traffic on the bridge to include three 8×4 concrete agitators, one behind the other, weighing eighty plus tonnes, and possibly overloaded, covering a distance of less than 30 metres.