From the CEO: It’s time to make the system work as one

Originally published September/October 2023

It is a matter of history that railways in this country were largely protected by state governments after Australia became a federal state.

When it came into existence in 1901, the Constitution did not speak to the powers of the new Commonwealth government in relation to road transport, so it was left to the states to regulate as they saw fit.

To be fair, there were no trucks when the Founding Fathers began writing the Constitution in the 1890s, only horse-drawn carriages or buggies.

As owners of railroad operations, each state wanted to protect its own revenue base.

It is self-evident that there is no interest like self-interest.

States imposed duties on cross-border freight carriers – unless the goods were transported by rail.

Naturally, this was in conflict with Article 92 of the Constitution which deemed “trade and commerce” between the states “entirely free.”

To highlight this, a group of truck drivers loaded a copy of the Constitution into a wheelbarrow and pushed it by hand between Melbourne and Sydney in 1952.

It took 11 days, two days faster than mailing a package at the same time by rail.

It was a well-made point.

A lawsuit brought by transport company Hughes & Vale against the state of New South Wales in the Australian High Court took action to change the face of interstate trade in 1955.

(By the way, I flipped State Transport (Coordination) Act The NSW Motor Transport Commissioner has given the power to refuse an application for a truck licence if the applicant is “not a fit and proper person” to hold it.)

Of course, raising fees was just the beginning of the story of land transport coordination.

For a lot of the background on this, I’m indebted to Jim Gibson and Alan Whiting, two industry veterans who run the vehicle website, a treasure trove of information on all things transport and vehicles.

As they explain, it took until the late 1970s for states to agree on a uniform configuration of interstate trucks.

Victoria preferred a single-engined prime mover, coupled with a tandem axle trailer and spreader and was rated at 32 tons per cubic metre.

NSW considered that ubiquitous vehicles were damaging roads and trailers because they caused excessive drag at corners.

It took field testing for authorities to recommend a standardized interstate configuration of a tandem-drive prime mover coupled to a three-axle trailer, rated at 36 tons GCM, in 1978.

National acceptance followed, but states and territories had different rules for using their bridges.

The lesson here is that reform comes slowly.

Did you know that B-Doubles weren’t allowed in Australia until 1984?

Or the regulations favored a cab-over-engine (COE) prime mover. Changes to the bridge regulations were required in order for the setback axis main actuators to be operational.

As explains, the type of trucks operating in different places around the world is largely influenced by local conditions.

There are countless examples of what worked in Europe not working in Australia.

Fast forward to today, and the organization created to make our truck laws work in tandem, the National Transportation Commission, is still struggling to do its job.

Making the national shipping mission more efficient is more important than ever.

It is not just the difficult economic conditions facing us at the moment, but the global move away from fossil fuels that is upping the ante.

Doing this in a sensible and considered way that does not send small operators up the wall will require regulators not only to work smarter, but hand in hand with the industry.

What works in other countries may not work here.

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