Industry in crisis?
The Times They Are A-Changing. And so too is our industry as we know it today. Well, that much is certain if the Department of Transport has its way. As I write this article, our industry is in panic mode. Understandably so. Just in case you have been living on Mars, the Department of Transport (DoT) has proposed massive changes to the National Road Traffic Act.
As you will gather, the consequences of the proposals are just plain frightening. As RFA spokesperson Gavin Kelly points out, the mooted reductions in axle masses could result in a 12% decreased payload and a proportional 12% reduction in revenue to operators. “In some cases, operators could lose up to 5 t of payload. These costs would have to be passed on to the customer, and ultimately to the consumer,” he notes.
So why is the DoT proposing these changes? Essentially, they are meant to be aimed at relieving or reducing the load on the secondary network and revitalising the railways. Those are both brilliant concepts, but this is not the way to go. I say so for various reasons.
Firstly, the railways are doing a lousy job. When Maria Ramos took over, I rather naively believed that she would wave some sort of magic wand and fix things. That didn’t happen. And thus, while it may be cheaper to move goods via rail (that is questionable; delays are costly), many companies have no choice but to truck their goods around the country, and the continent for that matter.
Instead of protecting the rail industry, by forcing its usage, the railways need to be fixed. They need to provide a cost-effective, reliable service – then customers will go that route without being forced to do so via legislation.
Turning to the second issue, that of roads, it’s just not good enough to take trucks off the secondary roads. Are our roads in a a dire state of disrepair? Yes. The DoT is 100% right when it states that “most of the secondary road networks has reached a state of disintegration (sic)”. Are overloaded trucks contributing to their damage? Undoubtedly. But we need roads that are properly maintained; a first-world infrastructure that is capable of dealing with legally loaded trucks. The RFA has gathered that no funds are available to repair our roads. “The network has a five-year lifespan left before collapse,” warns Kelly. This situation is reminiscent of the United Kingdom in the 1970s. The British Royal Automobile Club (RAC) Foundation has just published a report called “The 1973-1975 Energy Crisis and its Impact on Transport”. According to the report, the 1970s were characterised by significant cuts in the roads budget, encouragement of freight transport to move from road to rail, a focus on railways expansion and development, and a shift in financing away from roads and towards public transport. Sounds familiar, doesn’t it? The problem is that these moves were ultimately not positive, leading the RAC Foundation to sound a recent warning that policy makers would do well to remember the lessons of that decade.
“Investment in roads produces very high rates of return and, at a time when every penny counts, politicians have a duty to get as much for taxpayers’ money as they can. And there is a similar duty to think strategically. With infrastructure projects taking so long to become reality, plans for the future need to be made and acted upon now,” notes director of the RAC Foundation, Professor Stephen Glaister.
Much of the same is needed here. Government must invest in our roads. Then we need proper policing, to ensure that operators do not overload. Otherwise it’s pretty useless getting these trucks to “migrate to the primary (road) networks”. An overloaded truck will wreck any road – be it a secondary road or a primary road. So it’s pointless moving trucks (which may be overloaded) from secondary to primary roads. That’s akin to saying it’s not acceptable for criminals to rob poor households, but it’s just fine for criminals to prey on rich households. Come on guys, that’s just plain daft.
The problem here is the roads and the lack of policing. Not the trucks. So let’s not put the cart before the horse and attack the trucks. Instead, the DoT really needs to focus on the root causes of this messy situation: our crumbling roads and our ridiculously low levels of policing.
I have a third, very important, reason for saying that these proposals are wrong. All the stakeholders should be sitting down and chatting like grown-ups before anything like this happens. The proposals need to be put on hold and then a series of meetings needs to be planned – with the attendance of absolutely everyone who could be impacted. The railways need to be included – I wonder how they feel about suddenly being lumped with masses of extra freight? Quite panicked, I would image.
When Bob Dylan wrote his famous song, “The Times They Are A-Changin”, he made some valid points in this regard. He wasn’t writing about road networks, although some of the lyrics are almost fantastically apt. “Your old road is rapidly agin’,” he wrote. “Come senators, congressmen; please heed the call.”
I don’t think I could have put it better.