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Top 25: Big issues faced by stock transporters

by Jon Condon and James Nason, 17 December 2013

 

During the compilation of profile articles on companies appearing in Beef Central’s Top 25 transporters feature, we asked contacts to nominate the one issue that Canberra or their respective State Governments could address that would improve the performance of their business.

Here’s a sample of some of the responses …

 

Condition of Central Australia’s dirt roads

Operations manager for Tanami Transport at Alice Springs, Mark Castagna, says the big issue that would help his business operations most would be improvement to Central Australia’s busier dirt roads.

For Tanami’s cattle operations, that mainly means the Plenty Highway and the Tanami Highway. The Plenty snakes across 500km from Alice Springs to Boulia, in far northwestern Queensland, while the Tanami heads basically the opposite direction, 1000km northwest to Halls Creek in WA. Both are key routes for the company’s stock business.  

“They are real bad, and getting worse – taking a huge toll on our trucks,” Mr Castagna told Beef Central.

“It’s unbelievable how much damage those roads cause to tyres, shock-absorbers and suspension. These trucks are built tough, but the roads are so rough that pieces like bonnet rubbers, radiator mounts and engine mounts just start falling off. It’s the constant corrugations and holes.”

He estimated Tanami Transport was spending $300,000 to $400,000 a year in additional replacement and maintenance on its trucks, due to the state of central Australia’s roads – over and above everyday wear-and-tear.

“The last transport run I did myself across the Plenty, it took me more than seven hours to do the 400km from Tobermorey to Alice. You ring up and complain and the government says, we got no money,” he said.  

 

Registration and cost to operate

Tony Richardson, from Richardson Bros based in Rutherford, NSW says the cost to operate in the livestock transport business is spiralling out of control.

“The broader community has no idea what registration costs are like. For somebody paying less than $1000 to register a ute, they may be surprised to learn that it costs $20,000 a year to register a B-double now, regardless of how heavily it is used during the year,” he said.

“Fuel costs are also making business very difficult. In a normal month for us, our fleet fuel bill is around $300,000.”

 

Uniform regulations between states

A number of operators touched on the pressing need for uniform national transport regulations around Australia.

Anthony Boyle, operations manager for Boyles Livestock Transport, Allansford, Vic said the completion of uniform national regulations from state to state would be a big start in lifting the livestock trucking sector’s efficiency.

“Currently there are different loading regulations, driving regulations and permit structures, and different access approval routes, which is a nightmare,” he said.

Rationalising that into a simple, easy-to-understand national system would be a huge advance for the industry, he said, because it was an industry that largely worked across multiple state boundaries.

Warren Perkins, general manager of StockTrans Transport based at Glen Innes, also nominated uniformity of regulations from state to state.

“Laws over weights and measures and rules and regulations vary from state to state, which is difficult for most livestock transporters that frequently visit two, three or more states as part of their operations,” he said.

“It would make a huge difference in efficiency if we could operate in every state under the same set of guidelines.”

“Where Queensland has volume loading, NSW has livestock loading, which is better than it was, but there’s still considerable room for improvement.”

“For example, we’re entitled to cart 68 tonnes, but if you’re a bit heavy on just one axle, while still being under that gross limit, they can knock you off and take you back to 64 tonnes. That costs money and efficiency.”

Concerns over one axle’s weight, or gross weight, could at times mean leaving an animal or two behind in order to avoid the risk of exceeding the limit.

 

Fuel-use based registration

Central Western Queensland transporter Gerard Johnson, from Johnson Bros, found it difficult to narrow his target down to a single point.

“The condition of roads is always a big issue for us, but I’d say the implementation of a fuel-use based registration system,” he said.

“Many livestock transport operators’ businesses are more seasonal, and do not do the big miles that a general freight carrier along the coast might do – yet we still pay the same registration,” he said.

“General freight carriers like NQX have their set runs every day, and can easily clock up 300,000km a year. Our work is a lot more seasonal, and there are very few regular runs. Many livestock transporters would do half that mileage figure over 12 months.”

“Additionally, a lot of the roads we travel on aren’t federally funded – they are gravel roads out in the middle of nowhere.”

The current registration is at a flat rate, regardless of the amount of work a vehicle does over a yearly cycle, making it relatively expensive for the livestock transport sector.

Currently a prime mover cost $11,000 to $12,000 a year to register, plus three trailers each at $1800, giving a total annual registration per unit, in Johnson Bros case, of around $17,400.

“We think a registration linked to fuel use would be fairer and more equitable for those users like livestock transport who don’t do the same miles. So many fee structures these days are based on user-pays, and we see no reason why registration cannot be the same. Fuel-based would seem to be the easiest way to sort that out.”

Mr Johnson said the industry had a battle, however, because livestock transport tended to be smaller family-based businesses, and did not have the same voice in Canberra that the bigger, powerful national general freight carriers did.

 

Road funding

Frasers Livestock Transport’s Ross Fraser said while there was a number of obvious targets, the standard of regional roads was perhaps the biggest.

“We simply have not spent enough money on regional roads in Australia in the past 20 or 30 years, and we’re paying the price now: it’s holding regional Australia back from fulfilling its potential,” he said.

“I fail to see why Australia has to continue to rely on budgeted money to build roads, rather than borrowing to do it. I’d like to see the nation borrow some serious money and build some roads – get the job done properly. Better roads bring efficiencies, in transport and across the industry generally.”

“Governments don’t realise just how important an issue the state of the roads is. The fatigue that inferior roads is causing to both car and truck drivers is considerable,” Mr Fraser said.

“In a local context, for the life of me I can’t understand why they don’t get in and build that’s second range crossing in Toowoomba. It’s so badly needed,” he said.

 

Flexible driving hours

A large Queensland transport operator who asked to remain anonymous in this article nominated regulations over driver operating hours as an issue that was having considerable impact on his business.

One of the main reasons why so many northern cattle were cross-loaded with other transport operators as they headed into southeast Queensland feedlots, at centres like Morven or Mitchell, was limitations caused by driving hours regulations. In Queensland, he said those regulations limited drivers to 12 hours a day, six days a week.

“The key problem is that the rulebook we operate under is the same as for a heavy vehicle operating in and around Sydney, doing short-haul work,” he said.

“There’s plenty of places that we service with cattle transport where we can drive the maximum 12-hours, and not even get to the bitumen. There are roads that we are forced to drive at 25km/h on, for five hours or more, because of the state of the road,” the operator said.

“Even if you wanted to spell cattle from points A to B, there are plenty of trips we do where there’s nowhere to do it.”

“The trucks are doing 150,000 to 180,000km a year. In a B-double on good roads, that’s not much at all, but in a triple roadtrain on the roads we face, that’s a lot of driving,” he said.    

Asked whether a second driver was the solution, this operator said it was often hard to find the first driver for a roadtrain, let alone a second one. And it could often be hard to find two drivers that would always get along well in the cab together.

“You still have to pay the both the same amount of money, and the industry is struggling to pay its bills now, let alone adding a second driver’s wages.”

The operator said the industry had gone down every different avenue in the area of driver hours, but part of the problem was that with every new change of government, the lobby process basically had to start again.

“The key to the solution, in my opinion, is flexibility in the driving hours. There may be days where a driver here needs to do 15 or 16 hours in one day, but that could be balanced with nine or ten later in the week. A bit of common sense and flexibility, in recognising the distances and time involved in working in this region, is the key.”

“We’re not on a two-lane highway outside Sydney or Melbourne somewhere.”

Another operator to nominate flexible driving hours as an area of impact was Ross Fraser, managing director of Frasers Transport, Warwick.

“We’re an industry that doesn’t have to drive during those vulnerable, highest risk periods overnight,” Mr Fraser said.

“Very few cattle are ever on the road at 2 o’clock in the morning. And we need to be rewarded for that: because we are largely off the road in that vulnerable late-night period, we need some flexibility in the hours we do drive.”

“The great majority of stock transport work the work is done from 4 or 5 in the morning til 10 or 11 at night. Most responsible operators try to keep their trucks off the road outside that period, and that should be reflected in flexible driving hours.”

“We operate under the basic fatigue management principles which give our drivers 14 hours working and driving, but in some days, it’s just not enough. We need a flexible 16-hour day,” Mr Fraser said.

Unreliability of Emissions standards engines in remote areas

Another issue raised by transporters servicing the more remote parts of the country concerned the impact that mandatory emission standards have had on engine reliability.

Since the introduction of new exhaust gas emission rules in 2003, new truck engines increasingly been fitted with electronic control systems to regulate the amount of pollutants released in the exhaust.

A number of transporters contacted by Beef Central said the electronic systems have made engines less reliable and less fuel efficient than the traditional mechanical engines.

One transport operator said the remote areas of Western Australian, Northern Territory and Queensland “were not friendly” to electronically-controlled trucks, which created potentially dangerous situations for both drivers and cattle.

“In our own case the engines are totally unreliable,” the operator told Beef Central.

“We are having major breakdowns, in most when cases loaded with cattle and long distances from help.”

When trucks broke down it could then take several hours or more for a back up truck to arrive, depending on its location.

The veteran cattle transporter said the problem was made more difficult because the mining industry tended to receive priority treatment from the service divisions of the major engine companies.

As a result it was increasingly common to be told when seeking assistance with a broken down prime mover that field service personnel were not available because they were ‘out of hours’. In other words they their shifts had already been taken up servicing mining industry engines and they did not have enough hours left to assist stranded road trains.

“What do we do with a loaded cattle truck in the middle of nowhere when mechanics are always out-of-hours? What is the government going to do about the problem?,” he asked.

While the new engines with emission standards technology are designed to reduce the amount of pollutants released in the exhaust, they burn more fuel and are less efficient in the process, transporters have told Beef Central.

One explained that he still had a 10 year old truck with a C500 engine and a 19 litre motor. He said the engine was considered heavy on fuel in its day, but would now be the most fuel efficient vehicle in his fleet.

“The one big problem is the extra fuel they are using and the suggested 10pc extra, we have found is closer to 20pc extra.

“The transport Industry cannot absorb this cost, and producers would not be too happy to have this cost passed on.”

 

 

 



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