The transport ministers of Australia have signed off on a package of reforms, which are all about finding a long term fix for PBS. We have been living with the reality of the Performance Based Standards for quite a few years now and it looks like a very different beast from the one which was described to us by the campaigners who got it up in the first place.
The picture painted was one of innovative multiple combinations giving us fantastic productivity gains and of smarter, longer and heavier trucks plying the routes between our major cities. Instead, what did we get? Well, lots and lots of tipper and dog combinations. All the way from the humble 19.5 metre quad dog up to the enormous six axle dogs, and bigger, running around the city.
In terms of productivity gains the biggest winner were those who could utilise the latest A-double designs and get up to a 100 per cent improvement in productivity. These trucks have managed to sneak in without many of the general public noticing, the tow bar is short enough for these road trains to look like B-doubles to uninformed car drivers.
Some bits of the PBS scheme have worked well. A bunch of smart young engineering teams, as PBS Assessors, have come up with a series of new designs for transport companies, which meet the criteria and gain approval through the PBS Panel. When the trucks are built the certifiers are getting them signed off and ready to go.
Unfortunately, there is a stage in there somewhere, hopefully before the truck gets built, where the road managers of the route the trucks will be using have to sign off on the vehicle and route, often adding caveats for good measure.
In this area we have a massive gulf in understanding or knowledge, as well as a deficiency of data. Most major routes are classified for one level of PBS or another, but many other are not. The individual local authorities often don’t have anyone who can competently classify a route. All of this is providing the system with one big road block.
The reforms, formulated by the National Transport Commission are a step in the right direction and the intentions behind the changes are commendable. We shall now wait and see how this plays out in the back blocks in terms of last mile access.
One stand-out is the plan to get Austroads and the National Heavy Vehicle Regulator to get a nationally consistent guidelines for road engineers to assess infrastructure. Consistency from road engineers is vital and sadly missing at the moment.
Then there is something the states and territories were supposed to have done ten years ago and didn’t, classify all of their roads to a particular access level and then make that information available to all. Some states have dragged their feet in classifying roads as it hasn’t been seen as a priority. Let’s hope it becomes a priority now.
There is a really practical suggestion about the standards set. When they were first created electronic safety systems were in their infancy. Vehicle assessment has to be done assuming all safety systems, like electronic stability control are turned off.
Rethinking the standards so some of these technologies can be used to get an innovative and productive truck over the line and safely on our roads, seems to be a no-brainer. We just have to ensure the driver is not one of those luddites who drive around with the EBS unplugged.
Review of the PBS system every seven years will be welcome. Technologies change, freight tasks develop, the way roads are built and repaired moves on. We need a regular review to make the PBS rules relevant to the here and now.
There is also a provision for a communications plan from the NHVR. The money would be best spent educating and informing the road managers and the politicians, both at state and local level to get them up to speed and on board. Once access becomes a rational process, the road block disappears and PBS can fulfil those promises it made to us all of those years ago.