Change over ten years

Ten years ago, in April 2011, I published my first article in Prime Mover magazine.

That was 110 articles ago. This anniversary prompted me to consider what has changed in our industry over the past ten years.

I cannot do justice to this subject on two pages, so I will consider just a few performance indicators. Next month I will look ahead over the next ten years and try to predict where we will be in 2031.

Road Safety
The safety performance is slightly better now than ten years ago. Mainly, this is because articulated truck safety has significantly improved. Over the same time, the size of the fleet has increased by about seven per cent, so the safety performance represents a noticeable improvement.
The reasons for the road safety improvement are 1) better fatigue management, 2) more effective enforcement of driving standards, 3) gradual road infrastructure improvements on main routes, 4) better multi-combination trucks and 5) Chain of Responsibility (COR obligations). It is sobering to report that driving a truck is still the most dangerous occupation in Australia.

Occupational Safety
Safe Work Australia has studied the safety performance of the road transport industry. The circular graphics show a recent analysis. Note 21 per cent of fatalities are not from road trauma. Considering serious incidents, about 90 per cent of them occur outside the cabin! I can’t find a time history for occupational safety performance. Anecdotally, I anticipate significant improvement over the past decade. Many operators have told me they have focused on slips and trips and lifting/manhandling injuries in their logistics businesses. Side gates are smaller to reduce weight, plug-in handrails are used to assist climbing onto trays, safety rails now pop up on top of tankers. There has been a concerted effort to improve occupational safety over the past decade. Freight Rates have increased at no more than CPI over the past ten years. This has not adequately compensated the road transport sector for the increasing demands from customers, COR, training, etc. Consequently, operators must focus on productivity improvements to stay in business. One consequence is the median age of vehicles continues to increase.

The Road Freight Task
The Federal Bureau of Transport and Regional Economics reports on the scale of the freight task (Research Report 152, 2019). The total road freight volume has been increasing approximately linearly between 2008 and 2018. Over the decade 2008–2018 the growth in ‘general road freight’ (light blue and beige together) was about 15 per cent over the decade. On average, ~ 1.5 per cent a year. On a tonne-kilometre basis the growth was about 22 per cent over the decade. Impressive!

Fleet Size
The size of the market for new vehicles is monitored by ARTSA-I based upon our analysis of the NEVDIS (registration) data. The market in 2021 was down, as expected because of the COVID-19 induced uncertainty. The peak sales year was 2019, when the market was about 10 per cent larger than a decade earlier. The median age of heavy vehicles in the fleet is still going up. It is about 14 years for a truck and slightly older for a trailer. The overwhelming trend is that the long-haul fleet has changed to high productivity vehicles (B-doubles, A-doubles, long dog-trailers, super Bs). The additional freight task has been met by productivity improvements. In October 2020 there were about 46,000 multi-combination prime movers registered in Australia. The number of single trailer prime movers was about 64,000. The multi-combination prime mover segment has been growing at about five per cent pa over the decade, whereas the single trailer prime movers crept up at about one per cent.

Diesel fuel has been king over the past decade. Ten years ago, there were high hopes for Compressed Natural Gas (CNG) as a heavy vehicle fuel. Whilst there are still many route service buses running on CNG, most truck operators have, or are in the process of getting out of CNG on freight trucks. The reason for this is the complexity of supply, storage, and maintenance of CNG when compared to diesel. LPG top-up into the air intake was also trailed and rejected because the engines ran too hot.
The cost of diesel fuel has been flat over the past decade. In 2010 the Australia-wide average diesel price at the pump was $130.10. In 2020 this price was $126.90, although the COVID-19 disturbance is a factor. The average annual fuel price range was $118.50-$156.80. Diesel fuel price has been static.

Vehicle Types and PBS
The Performance-Based Standards (PBS) scheme has opened-up new vehicle types and new routes. The PBS scheme was interesting but insignificant in 2010. In 2021 PBS is mainstream and changing the high-capacity vehicle market. PBS underpins the common use of 4-, 5- and 6-axle dog trailers, and the introduction of high-productivity combinations in Victoria and elsewhere. In 2011, 25m long B-doubles were the workhorse-high-productivity combinations. In 2021, 26m B-doubles are still the workhorses, but there are new kids on the high-productivity routes. They are A-doubles (36.5m) and super B-doubles (30m). Axle weight limits have not changed over the past ten years. What has changed is the length and configuration of the high productivity fleet. PBS is relevant to about 20 per cent of the heavy-end market. In the past ten years, state road agencies have embraced high-productivity vehicles rather than fighting against them. It is now local government that is skeptical.

Industry Reform
The National Heavy Vehicle Regulator (NHVR) did not exist in 2011. It was established in 2013. After a shaky start, the NHVR is doing important work. The industry has confidence that uniform procedures have been developed and applied. The NHVR is a success! There is tension over delays in road-access permit applications being issued. High productivity vehicles need these permits to operate. Permits take longer to obtain in 2021 than in 2011; however, the difficulty and scale of road-access assessments has quadrupled. Because vehicles are longer than before, local road owners are taking more time to assess applications.

Vehicle Standards
There have been two significant changes in the design rules applicable to heavy vehicles over the past decade. Firstly, Vehicle Stability Control (VSC) was mandated effective from 2019 on most heavy vehicles. Most new trucks must have an intelligent braking system that provides ABS, rollover protection and directional stability. Trailers require an ABS and a rollover protection. I want to applaud NSW for mandating rollover protection on dangerous goods tankers ‘starting’ with new tankers in 2014 and in service tankers in 2019. I do not understand why the other states have not done so, because the technology works.
The second significant design rule change is that the driver seat in a heavy vehicle must have an integral seatbelt. No more B-pillar anchors! The Emergency Locking Retractor (ELR) also must have a high locking threshold – called a type 4N. These changes are intended to make seatbelt wearing more comfortable for the heavy vehicle drivers. On bumpy roads there is still a likelihood that the ELR will lock-up. The solution is probably to fit a locking clip that prevents the belt feeding into the ELR once it is being worn.

In the last decade, the industry made significant progress with safety, productivity and regulatory reform. There was little progress with cartage rates, which are low for the risks and activity involved. We also made good progress with the health of the driver and ancillary workforce but starting from a low point. The shortage of experienced drivers, diesel mechanics and managers is a serious threat to the safe and efficient operation of the industry. The workforce became more diverse and less experienced over the past decade. The machines are getting better. Finding good participants and training them well is our important challenge.

Dr. Peter Hart,