From the CEO: Time to make the system work as one

Read time: 3 mins

By Warren Clark

Originally Published September/October 2023

It’s a matter of historical record that the railways in this country were heavily protected by state governments after Australia became a federated nation.

When it came into existence in 1901, the Constitution was silent on the new Commonwealth Government’s powers over 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 started writing the Constitution in the 1890s, only stagecoaches or horse and carts.

As owners of railway operations, each State wanted to protect its own revenue base.

It’s a truism that there’s no interest like self-interest.

The States imposed levies on carriers of goods across borders – unless freight was being transported on rail.

Of course this was at odds with section 92 of the Constitution that deemed “trade, commerce and intercourse” between the states to be “absolutely free”.

To highlight this, a group of truckies put a copy of the Constitution in a wheelbarrow and pushed it by hand between Melbourne and Sydney in 1952.

It took them 11 days – two days quicker than a parcel mailed at the same time sent by rail.

It was a point well made.

It took legal action brought by the Hughes & Vale transport company against the State of NSW in the High Court of Australia to change the face of interstate trade in 1955.

(Incidentally, the overturned State Transport (Co-ordination) Act gave the NSW Commissioner for Motor Transport the power to refuse an application to hold a truck licence if the applicant was “not a fit and proper person” to hold it.)

Of course, the lifting of levies was only the start of the story about harmonisation of road transport.

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

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

Victoria favoured a single-drive prime mover, coupled to a tandem-axle, spread-bogie trailer and that was rated at 32 tonnes GCM.

NSW considered that spread bogies were damaging roads and trailers as they caused excessive drag when cornering.

It took a field test for authorities to recommend a uniform interstate configuration of a tandem-drive prime mover coupled to a tri-axle trailer, rated at 36 tonnes GCM, in 1978.

National acceptance followed but the States and Territories had varying rules to use their bridges.

The lesson is that reform comes slowly.  

Did you know B-Doubles were not allowed in Australia until 1984?

Or that regulations favoured cab-over-engine (COE) prime movers. It took changes to bridge regulations for set-back axle prime movers to come into operation.

As shows, the type of trucks in operation in various places around the world is very much shaped by local conditions.

There are countless examples of what works in Europe being impractical in Australia.  

Fast-forward to the present day and the organisation created to make our truck laws work in synch, the National Transport Commission, is still struggling with its task.

Making the national freight task more efficient is more important than ever before.

It’s not just the difficult economic circumstances confronting us right now, but the global move away from fossil fuels that ups the ante.

Doing that in a sensible and measured way that doesn’t send small operators to the wall is going to require regulators to not only work much smarter, but hand-in-hand with industry.

What works in other countries may not here.