Remain Vigilant

Road Versus Rail

The trucking industry has always had a problematic relationship with the railway industry, or more specifically, the rail freight industry as road versus rail tensions continue. A lot of this is historical, dating back to the time when state governments limited licenses for trucks to carry freight in order to drive business onto the state owned railways.

 

This kind of restriction on trade lead to massive inefficiencies and high costs. Over the years, the trucking industry has grown fast, as regulation has eased to the point we are now where road transport handles over 80 per cent of the freight task and rail cannot even contest the vast majority of the business, due to the inflexibility of its system.

 

Much of Australia’s recent economic growth, or a proportion of it, can be put down to the ever increasing productivity of the road transport sector. This is something of which the trucking industry can be proud and should be shouting it from the roof tops. Unfortunately, the rest of Australian society is not interested and not listening, as long as there are Corn Flakes on the supermarket shelves.

 

The high productivity and competitiveness of road transport has also helped stimulate a radical improvement in productivity in the rail industry. There is also a substantial increase in the level of competition in rail as the state rail companies have morphed into the current line-up of rail operators.

 

The fierce competition for lucrative rail freight contracts, especially those with the mining industry, has spilled over into the wider community lately. Aurizon lost a contract carting copper from a mine in Mount Isa to Townsville with Glencore. The rail company refused to sell or lease the rolling stock, needed to get the work done, to the new contractor, Pacific National.

 

Tooling up for these multi-million tonne freight contracts is a major capital expense and rolling stock often changes hands from operator to operator as contracts swap around. This time the relationship has soured and the position is in a deadlock.

 

What happens as a result? The trucking industry steps in and starts hauling the copper out of the Isa to the port by road. Yet again, the trucking industry demonstrates its quickness on its feet to jump in and save the day and get the job done.

 

Of course, it does help when we have surplus capacity lying around in paddocks due to the overall mining construction slowdown. Even so, those trailers sitting idle in the Port Hedland area, for example, could be on the job, on the other side of the country in a couple of days. This would not be possible for any rolling stock, due to rail connection and gauge issues.

 

This one event should bring home the point which needs to be made regularly to and by the trucking industry. We are the major player in the freight industry and, as a consequence, need to be listened to by governments and regulatory bodies.

 

There needs to be less of this road vs rail business and taking our eye off the ball and more asserting our rightful position at the table as a unified industry. Oh yes, and we can bring our little sibling, rail, along, when the situation demands it.

Remain Vigilant

Hitting the Right Target

The stats prove we are not talking to the people we need to communicate with, trucking needs to make sure it’s safety message is hitting the right target audience. Actually, it’s not just trucking, there is a need for everyone concerned with safety to reach the demographic, which is the main issue.

 

Owen Driscoll from NTI and involved its National Truck Accident Research Centre has spent many years going around with a safety message for the trucking industry. In recent years, he has been backing this up with significant numbers from the NTARC.

 

One message comes out very clearly from his figures and is quoted over and over again in discussions about safety on the road around trucks. The number quoted varies, but is consistently a percentage in the eighties.

 

The number in question is the percentage of accidents involving a truck and another vehicle in which the other vehicle was deemed to be at fault. From the latest research, this number now stands at 88 per cent. Let’s run that number by you again, 88 per cent.

 

This tells us quite a lot about what is going on out there on the highway. It tells us one of the biggest safety risks facing any truck driver is someone in one of those light vehicles around them. The truck driver and the safety regime in the company he works for, plus all of the regulatory control of the trucking industry, have absolutely no control over the way the uninformed car driver acts around trucks.

 

The solution so far has been to prepare the truck and the driver for the worst. They can be trained in all of the best defensive driving techniques, anticipating errant stupidity or a total lack of judgement on the part of the other vehicle driver, but it will not stop these accidents occurring.

 

Likewise, the truck can be fitted with all of the latest electronic gadgets to increase safety around the truck. Beepers can go off when a car is in the blind spot, an array of cameras can feed the truck driver with a full set of images around the truck and radar can see a stationary vehicle in front and hit the brakes on the truck.

 

Despite all of this training and safety equipment, we still get the same figure, 88 per cent. In fact it has been slowly creeping up over the years I have been reporting on this subject.

 

This increase is not a result of trucks becoming more unsafe, in fact, it’s the opposite. It is a result of the drivers of those vehicles in close proximity to the truck not knowing anything about how to react in and around our trucks.

 

Why don’t they know? Because nobody ever told them. They have been given no information about the size and weight of the truck, or how it will react in certain circumstances. They also seem to know the truck is always at fault, because that’s how it is portrayed in the media, even an accident between a truck and three cars is described as a ‘truck crash’! No matter who was at fault.

 

Now is the time to do something about it. We have the stats, Owen will come along and bend your ear about them anytime you want. We have the safety culture being driven into our industry by responsible operators and improving regulation.

 

What we don’t have is any form of consistent message reaching the ears of those people who are at fault in 88 per cent of all two vehicle accidents involving a truck. Why? Because they are the general public and we don’t know how to get a message to them? Because we don’t know who causes the accidents?

 

There must be a way to get all of the interested parties singing from the same hymn sheet and getting some real funding to send the right message to the right people. We just need a smart campaign, well designed and targeted at a group of people who are causing death on our roads.

Remain Vigilant

Put Your Money Where Your Mouth Is

We often have to sit and listen to the powers that be telling us how committed they are on safety, our reaction is often something like, ‘put your money where your mouth is’. Well, this week someone finally did, it’s not a massive amount but it is significant symbolically.

The Australian Trucking Association has run some kind of Safety Trailer around since the early nineties. It began as a way of spreading the word, via visits to shopping centres etc. trying to get the general public to understand and be aware of the trucks with which they share the road.

Over time it has transmogrified into a teaching aide traveling from school to school all across Australia. Groups of kids are cycled through the truck and trailer in groups, getting the message about how to behave around trucks and, hopefully, inspiring some young minds to think about a career in the road transport industry.

It may be a small parcel of information trying to get through to a generation of kids who are constantly being bombarded with information for the whole of their waking lives. It is a real bit of information and the reality of a semi trailer parked up in the school yard is often impressive, in and of itself.

This Safety Trailer is funded by the ATA to the tune of over $200,000 a year and cost considerably more to set up in the first place and will cost even more when being refurbished later this year. It is a major cost to the organisation but the belief in its value, both by the ATA’s founders and its current leadership mean it will continue to function.

This week, I was at a small gathering where Sal Petroccitto, the National Heavy Vehicle Regulator CEO, announced the regulator was going to contribute $5000 a year, for four years, to the ATA Safety trailer for the next four years.

While this is hardly going to make a major change to the state of the finances of the project, it does make a symbolic gesture about the importance of the project and the way the powers that be are thinking in this space, at the moment.

This is the regulator we are talking about, its job is to ensure the rules governing the road transport industry on the road are clearly stated and correctly enforced. Nowhere in the NHVR’s remit does it state it has to fund safety related initiatives by other organisations.

The signal it sends is clear, there is an agenda, apparently being driven from above, from the Federal Minister himself, to push safety and any initiative which will improve safety outcomes around the trucking industry.

We can only hope this kind of atmosphere continues, we don’t want to sit through another set of speeches at another safety related event to be told how important the philosophy of safety is in our industry. We want the speakers to do the right thing and ‘Put Their Money Where Their Mouth Is!’

Remain Vigilant

Playing Political Games With Safety

Here we go again, just as happened last year, we have interest groups playing political games with safety. What is going to be lost from sight during the ongoing row and smokescreen? Actual safety on the road, that’s what!

The cause of the debate this time is a well targeted and well planned manoeuvre by the Transport Workers Union. A Safety Summit, organised by the TWU, was held last week and the major presentation was a report from a research team at Macqaurie University. Unsurprisingly, seeing as the TWU were involved, the report found safety was being compromised by low rates since the abolition of the RSRT.

“A Macquarie University report has revealed the major reasons why truck driving is Australia’s deadliest job,” ran one news report. “Long hours, pressure to drive unsafe schedules with unsafe loads and an inability to raise safety concerns without jeopardising their jobs are among the risks to safety facing drivers.”

Meanwhile in the Sydney Morning Herald: “A truck cabin is among the deadliest workplaces in Australia, new research shows. The Macquarie University study, which surveyed 559 truck drivers, found a high proportion are forced to work long and dangerous hours carrying unsafe loads to avoid losing their jobs.”

The summit was held without any dissenting voices in attendance. When the news reports hit the wires the representatives of the trucking industry were incensed and hit back with a number of statements in an effort to mitigate the damage.

Yet again the TWU demonstrated its PR nouse and got the jump on the trucking industry. Not only did it get real traction out there in the media, but for the general public, if they took any notice at all, the impression would have been one of truck driving being an extremely dangerous job because of the evil employers and shippers paying low rates.

One major outlet, the ABC, did follow up the initial story with one about the disgust of the trucking industry associations with the way the TWU had set up the research, released it at a summit by stealth and then got a lot of media attention for the results.

In the rebuttal, SARTA’s Steve Shearer was able to talk about what the TWU had done and introduce some facts with a bit more credible backing. However, the coverage on the ABC, two days after the event, is unlikely to have much impact.

What we have happening in this instance is, yet again, the trucking industry being on the back foot and being outmanoeuvred in the media by the TWU, which is, by the way, a member of the ATA. The TWU have the right to pursue their policies for the benefit of their members and the union itself, and they do so effectively and professionally.

Meanwhile on the other side of the argument, the industry’s representatives also do their job professionally and, they can claim, more ethically. However, the situation has not been handled effectively.

From the point of view of Joe Public, the trucking industry is a bad place to work, the rates are bad and causing danger to the general community. Yet again, we have lost a PR battle. I don’t have a solution, but could we commission some research to see if we can find one?

 

Remain Vigilant

Who’s Who in the Zoo?

The announcement this week by the National Transport Commission of a plan to develop a regular report into what is happening inside the road transport industry reminds us just how we don’t know who’s who in the zoo in the trucking world.

 

There is no reliable database about what trucks are shifting what freight, from where and to where. They can’t even come up with a reliable figure on how many truck operators there are in Australia. This point was highlighted last year when each media outlet had a different figure for how many owner drivers were going to be affected by the introduction of the RSRT.

 

We know we don’t know much, we also know what we know anecdotally from what people tell us and what we see. There are some ideas about what is going on with monthly truck sales figures, but we have only recently started to get any information about trailer sales.

 

There is accident information which breaks the data down by state and whether any truck involved is a rigid or articulated. This data is extended by the good work done by the NTI National Truck Accident Research Centre, drilling down into the insurance company’s own data to detect trends in on road behaviour in trucking.

 

Of course, we have some massive transport operators who record everything and get a really good snapshot of what is going on in their business. This data holds a very reliable picture of the whole industry. Unfortunately, it is owned by the company in question and they are not going to let anyone else know what’s going on, they are using good quality data to develop their own businesses.

 

So the best we can expect to get when looking at the trucking industry in Australia is, probably, an educated guess. This is probably good enough when putting together a weekly opinion piece for the Diesel News email newsletter, but not quite as dependable when developing government policy and planning infrastructure development.

 

Perhaps this can be used as an explanation for the dire policy decisions we have had to endure in the past. The trucking industry is unknown and ignored by government until something goes wrong. Then the knee jerk reaction shows the government doing something, but it’s always reactive, ill-judged and often ill-timed.

 

Even in this era of data being recorded all of the time about everything, we are still not very far from the situation where we are ‘making transport policy by the side of the road’, as we were in 1989. The example of the RMS reaction after the Mona Vale crash comes to mind on this front.

 

We are still dealing with the consequences of the scatter gun approach to regulation which has given us a myriad of different rules, in different states, many of which are in direct conflict with each other.

 

The proposed NTC report is planned to be a five yearly thing, so we can’t even expect to get the first snapshot until well after 2020. Then we will have to wait another five years to identify any trends. After that it will be a further couple of years to get some new regulations, laws, initiatives which will use the data to make things better. Don’t hold your breath!

Remain Vigilant

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!