Just like their metropolitan comrades, rural carriers frequently face challenges in completing the final mile for deliveries or pick-ups at rural properties.
Operators of larger road transport vehicles frequently encounter bureaucratic obstacles which deny their access despite such vehicles being capable of physically negotiating the roads leading to and from farming properties.
The concept for a restricted farm gate access scheme was initiated by the Livestock, Bulk and Rural Carriers Association of NSW (LBRCA) and has been taken on as a project by Transport for NSW (TfNSW) with the aim to develop a scheme to make it easier to apply for, and approve, safe and legal access for higher productivity vehicles travelling on low volume local roads managed by councils.
The framework aligns with the NSW Government’s strategic direction for heavy vehicle access and improving network connectivity. The Farm Gate Access Project has been designed in partnership with peak industry bodies including the LBRCA.
The key premise in the entire project is about enabling safer, more productive and legal access for the first and last mile journeys involving rural properties.
“We are looking at local roads with limited connectivity: those local low volume roads managed by councils which go to the farm gate,” says Tara McAuley, Manager Stakeholder Program Delivery – Freight at TfNSW.
“We’re looking at roads that typically see less than 200 vehicles per day, and maybe only 25 of those are heavy vehicles. The kinds of properties we are looking at involve small scale primary production activity, so they only have occasional freight tasks of up to 26 return trips per year, per property. This project is specific to certain vehicle types so we’ve started with restricted access vehicles (RAV) up to, and including, 26 metre B-doubles, vehicles operating at HML, vehicles up to 4.6 metres in height and vehicles under the Livestock Loading or Grain Harvest management schemes. At this stage we are not considering roadtrains.”
A tertiary qualified engineer, Tara has been with TfNSW since 2006, back when it was known as RMS. Tara has represented the state authority at several international transport symposiums and has been an active member of various committees related to diversity and inclusion, Women in Infrastructure and as a regional leader on the NSW Transport Young Professionals Committee. LBRCA President Paul Pulver and LBRCA CEO Bec Coleman represent industry on the project’s steering committee.
“If we get caught with the wrong truck on the wrong road the farmer isn’t liable,” says Paul Pulver. “Hopefully this will lead to legalising access that may have been already used for years. We can put safety initiatives in to make it safer in relation to factors such as school buses and speed restrictions.”
To get the project underway a third-party risk assessment tool has been developed with three main elements.
“Firstly we have the procedure. This is essentially our end-to-end process of desiring a need for access, to receiving approval for access or otherwise. It calls out the scope, roles and responsibilities, and any risks that are identified in the framework,” says Tara.
The next step is a checklist which can be completed online or in hard copy and has been developed with an ease of use in mind. The checklist includes a series of questions, the responses to which determine the level of risk. Risks, once identified, can be mitigated to a lower level depending on the conditions the applicant nominates.
“Finally there is the Practitioners’ Guide which is a simple compilation of best practice when completing the assessment and is written with non-technical third parties in mind. The Practitioners’ Guide provides transparency over acceptable and manageable risk,” says Tara.
“As a package this works together to give councils confidence that applicants have gone through the correct steps in accordance with Ausroads criteria and using key policy documents to carry out a sound technical route assessment even though the applicant may be of a non-technical background. Essentially what we want to do is package this up and give it to council with your access permit and give them the evidence this is low risk on a low volume road.”
The provision to expand the scheme is built into the framework.
“If there are many requests for a particular road it pops up an alert and it says there’s obviously a need for access so council let’s have the conversation about increasing access to that road,” Tara explains.
The 12 month pilot was launched on June 1, 2019, involving 18 councils and has been essentially about testing the framework to make sure it was fit-for-purpose before a broader roll out across NSW. Both the National Heavy Vehicle Regulator and TfNSW supported the pilot by waiving their fees for applicants.
Constructive Solutions, which is a civil engineering and environmental engineering consulting agency, has been engaged by TfNSW to carry out formal evaluations of the project at the six, nine and 12 month stages.
“The evaluations are across three stages,” says Tara.
“Firstly, about the pilot’s establishment, and understanding the benefits which are available from the project for each of the participating council areas by improving farm access. The second stage is about contacting stakeholders including councils to obtain any relevant data and figuring out where we currently sit within those pilot councils in relation to access. For stage three we are planning on having two regional workshops with key stakeholders, particularly councils, to bring it together prior to completion of the pilot.”
Barriers to success which have so far been identified include the drought and the consequent lower demand for transport, and other natural disasters including bushfires and floods.
“Roadtrain access is not part of this project but it may be in the future,” says Tara.
“We want to look at incremental access recognising the vehicles we have selected are probably the next step. But we do know some participating councils, such as Moree, are really keen to have this sort of checklist used for roadtrains.
Understanding the capacity and ability of some of the bridges and other structures on council roads is a constraint.
The LBRCA has been really great about connecting us with some farmers who are keen for access so we’re doing more of that.”
According to Tara, the pilot is essentially a risk calculator tool that includes sight distances at intersections. It can be used to demonstrate to councils that a different vehicle is not necessarily less safe in these low risk-low volume situations.
“As part of the NSW heavy vehicle access policy framework we very clearly define our strategic direction and what we are after is unlocking the local road network as well as regional and state roads,” Tara says.
“We’re also looking at the safety and legality of our access across the network and supporting councils in assisting with their decisions.”