In its call for submissions during the consultation period on access issues, as part of the process in rewriting the Heavy Vehicle National Law, the National Transport Commission clearly identified the access issues which have dogged the trucking industry for the past 20 years.
People working in the trucking industry are hoping that higher productivity vehicles will enable them to cope with the growing freight task into the future. They will be watching and waiting as the consultation period plays out to see if there will be some genuine solutions to these issues in the recommendations embedded in the new HVNL when it appears next year.
In its comments calling for feedback, the NTC tells us it understands there are inefficiencies under the heavy vehicle access arrangements, the current system results in too many permits, delays for operators and inconsistent outcomes. It points out that even when low risk or routes are pre-approved, where risks are already known, operators still need to apply for permits.
There are a number of statements with which many operators are currently pulling their hair out trying to improve productivity would agree, like, “Road managers do not necessarily have a high degree of expertise with heavy vehicle classifications which can complicate and protract access decisions. The decision-making process is prescriptive and inflexible.”
At the moment the access debate turns on complex interrelated issues. The transport operator can get a vehicle approved as a particular class of vehicle and get access for over 90 per cent of the proposed route, only to find one local authority unable to sign off on the vehicle, unwilling to discuss the issue and unable to give the operator an alternative.
There is often a lack of transparency on these issues and an application disappears into a bureaucratic black hole while the poor truck operator has to wait for the OK. For many stuck in this situation, the end customer is unwilling to wait and looks for an alternative.
This lack of clear access guidelines for all roads is also having a detrimental effect on the PBS scheme. Often the truck operator will have to take the risk of building a vehicle to handle a task before they have access confirmed. This can make PBS a risky business, with vehicles parked up waiting for permission to move. Even when there is in principle agreement to allow a particular vehicle on a route, there is no limit to the timescale on which the final permission needs to be granted, more delays.
Operators are often unable to get guidance from the authority on what would be acceptable and have to make a series of applications, get them rejected and then decrease masses or lengths until an application gets over the line. On all access decisions made by state authorities there is no avenue for external review of a decision.
This is a complex and perplexing issue and one which is going to take some real clarity on the part of the ministers to find a genuinely workable solution. At the moment there is no cut through on the access decision making process because of the tiered nature of the way our roads are managed.
The National Heavy Vehicle Regulator may understand that a route is good to use and have the technical nous to prove it. However, the actual road manager may have allegiance to either the state authority or the local authority and therefore doesn’t feel the need to explain a decision to anyone. Until there is some compulsion to come up with quantifiable explanations for access decisions the current impasse looks set to continue.
The initial aim of this HVNL process was to act as a circuit breaker to introduce some rationality into the system and solve of the access issues which have dogged the trucking industry. However, the NTC’s initial discussion says it all when it tells us, ‘The community has low levels of awareness and understanding of freight and the freight industry’.