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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!

 

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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.

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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.

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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!’

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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.

 

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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.

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No Place for Women

The trucking industry has, historically, thought of itself as no place for women, however, this is clearly wrong. Women have contributed a lot to the trucking industry over the years and proved to be the backbone of many trucking organisations.

 

Having said this, the industry as a whole has managed to keep women at bay in many areas and retained the image this is a man’s world in which women have no place. Many women wanting to get a place in the industry have had to fight tooth and nail to get and hold a position, had to work much harder than a man in the same position.

 

The traditional roles women have undertaken in trucking can be divided into two distinct streams. One is as the support and organiser for the man who is the boss, but out there on the road driving trucks. The second are the feisty women who has broken into trucking on their own terms to prove a point about their equality.

 

We have to remember these were very different times, society as a whole had an attitude in which trucking wasn’t considered ladylike. It may be difficult to take our minds back to the last century, but it was acceptable in many circles to denigrate and be prejudiced against women.

 

In the past, many of the women active in the industry came into it as part of the team. Quite often, for an owner driver, the only way to run the business was to have someone who could answer the phone and ring around for work, while the truck was on the road.

 

I myself, in my first stint as an owner driver had a wife at home, looking after two toddlers, answering calls and looking for backloads. I would then find the odd telephone box and call in to see if there was any work and where it was.

 

She would not have regarded herself as a part of the trucking industry, but loading agents and bad payers had to learn how to deal with her. This scenario would have been duplicated in many thousands across the country. Some of these partners have gone on to run large operations themselves, as a result of circumstances, the ATA Chair, Noelene Watson, being a case in point.

 

Other women working in the trucking industry were there purely to make a point. If men wanted to exclude them, they were going to fight for their place. And fight they did, some of them, taking on the aggressive culture then prevalent. I myself have seen a female driver lay out a workshop foreman for saying the wrong thing.

 

What we need to realise now is how far these days are behind us. The industry has changed, but needs to change further. Enlightened companies are getting the best out of reliable female truckies, but they are also met with ignorance and prejudice out on the road, or at pickup and delivery points.

 

First of all the trucking industry is short of good quality drivers and can’t afford to ignore 50 per cent of the population as a possible solution. Secondly, trucking cannot be a marginal industry anymore, trying to live outside the mores current in the rest of the business world. The make up of the trucking industry needs to reflect the make up of society as a whole.

 

There have been some exemplary businesses driving change and they need to be applauded, but we need to bring everyone with us. There is no room for neanderthal attitudes towards women, the trucking industry has some great financial and lifestyle benefits for everyone involved. We need to make the working atmosphere in trucking, into one in which any woman would feel comfortable to work.

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Long Term Structural Change?

The trucking industry and those who supply it may have to ask the question, whether this is long term structural change? There is something happening, and we seem to think it’s only temporary, but it may not be the case.

I have been a keen watcher of truck sales figures over the years and there is definitely something going on, which is a little different. Variations are being explained away as short term fluctuations or corrections, but they are hanging around for a long time.

In years gone by, the trends in trucks sales were very predictable. The heavy duty sector drove the whole thing, pushing ahead and forming an accurate indicator of how the industry was going. If rates were getting squeezed and things were a bit tight, the truck buying public took the right foot off the pedal and sales slowed, for a while.

When things were going well, there was no stopping heavy duty truck sales. Just ask Kenworth, the company rode a wave of ever increasing demand for its product for a great deal of its history. Economic growth and rising truck sales went hand in hand, more goods needed moving, so truckies went out and bought newer, and bigger, trucks.

At the same time, light duty trucks were going pretty well. They again were a good indicator of economic health, especially in the building and retail sector. Medium duty trucks seemed to be stuck at one level, barely changing year-on-year.

Then 2008-2009 happened. It was quite a shock for a truck industry which had seen year on year growth for so much of the previous thirty years. The global recession didn’t cripple our economy like it did those in Europe and North America, but it did make lenders more wary and companies more careful about exposure to debt.

The slowdown was seen as a blip, truck sales would fall back for a period, and then, when everyone had got it out of their system, it would be business as usual. It’s been seven years since then and the truck industry is still comparing truck sales to 2008 levels and looking longingly at the days when the numbers kept rolling in.

Economic activity has returned to pre-GFC levels and is going quite well in many sectors. However, heavy duty has not started charging ahead. Instead, we are having a revival of the medium duty market and light duty trucks are selling well. In contrast, there has been a dip in van sales, one of the sectors which continued to perform strongly through the dip in sales in the rest of the market.

This is not just a blip and it will return to normal, the game has changed. The nature of freight transport is changing. Yes, there is a need for B-doubles to pound the highways at night between the capital cities, but the operators of these tasks seem to be getting smarter and minimising dead kilometres, improving productivity.

Control systems are also getting smarter, the right goods are in the right place at the right time more often. There is less need to get item A, from B to C between 5 pm tonight and 6 am tomorrow morning.

The increase in medium duty and strength of the light duty truck market can be put down to the increase in home delivery, associated with online shopping. There is a bigger need to get items distributed around urban areas efficiently and smaller trucks, with vans, are filling the gap.

Remember the good old days? Well, they are never coming back. We have to live in the modern era and be a light footed flexible industry ready to handle the changes in requirements the new order throws up.

No Room For Internal Bickering

In the light of the news Chris Melham is moving on from his post at the Australian Trucking Association, the trucking community must keep forging ahead. There is no room for internal bickering or territory battles, the industry is still facing major issues and needs to remain united and continue to fight the good fight. Read more

Take It Back To Sydney

With the slogan ‘Take It Back To Sydney’, NatRoad are showing a different way to approach the issues which directly affect the trucking industry. It seems the fight earlier in the year to bring down the RSRT has given the association a new lease of life. Read more