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Experts believe Victoria is impeding our PBS uptake

Many in the industry believe it offers road transport the most important productivity and safety improvements since the introduction of the B-double in the 1980s.

But leading engineer Robert Smedley says the uptake of the Performance-Based Standards (PBS) scheme by operators is being dramatically compromised by the mercenary approach of VicRoads, now merged with the Department of Transport (DoT).

“Victoria is basically seeing PBS as a money-making exercise,” said Smedley, boss of the leading end-to-end PBS consultancy in Australia, Smedley’s Engineers.

“They’re turning people away from PBS for sure, and turning people away from investing in new equipment, definitely.”

To illustrate his point, Smedley cites the bizarre recent case of the Victorian agency attempting to do a costly bridge assessment on a NSW-owned structure.

Bob Woodward, Chief Engineer at the Australian Trucking Association, tells us he’d heard the same story, and that the transport operator had only escaped a hefty bill because he was already aware that the bridge across the Murray River had been PBS-approved by NSW.

“Victoria is seeing the bridge assessments as a cash cow, charging anywhere from $5,000 to $20,000 per bridge, and sometimes up to $80,000 for a route, and taking six months to do it,” said Smedley. The other states provide the assessments as a free service and turn them around in a matter of two to four weeks.”

Smedley believes much of the increased costs in Victoria is a result of the department’s antiquated assessment policy of sending large teams of engineers to each site.

“NSW does it with a team of two to three engineers, and has got the computers doing all the work, whereas Victoria does it with a team of 40.

“Its manual approach [to assessments] is screwing the industry at the moment.”

Smedley’s call for an urgent review of the PBS permit system in Victoria already has backing from Victoria’s South-West Coast MP Roma Britnell, the Shadow Minister for Rural Roads, Ports and Freight.

A long-time campaigner for improvements in the way PBS paperwork is processed in the state, Britnell raised the issue again in Parliament just last month.

She told the legislative assembly that she wrote to the Minister for Roads and Road Safety Ben Carroll last October, expressing the serious PBS concerns that a number of industry stakeholders had made her aware of, yet five months later she had still not received a response.

“They are hurting, and they need your assistance urgently, and these vehicles are an improvement,” said

“They are better for our roads, they are safer and they cart product more effectively. So at a time post pandemic, more than ever before, let us get efficiency and productivity on the front foot for Victoria.”

Victoria’s DoT says it understands the issues faced by industry and has been improving access to get goods where they need to go.

Britnell said Victoria is the only state in Australia that charges PBS applicants a bridge assessment fee, which she told parliament can range from $1200 to more than $55,000.

She said the processing delays are exacerbated by the fact DoT is also treating each PBS truck as a new vehicle.

“Despite the fact that a new vehicle might be identical in every aspect to a vehicle that has already been assessed,” she continued.

“Even a new vehicle that has only very minor differences to a previously approved vehicle should not need to be treated as new.

“Whilst the nature of PBS is that vehicles are bespoke, the fact that virtually identical vehicles are not treated as being the same, meaning the application goes through this costly and lengthy bridge assessment, is nonsensical.”

Britnell said an improvement in processing time and lowering of bridge assessment costs would help reduce congestion around Melbourne and in turn boost manufacturing and employment in the state.

“The efficiencies these vehicles provide in moving product to market for farmers, be it dairy, be it beef, are enormous.”

Woodward, who was involved in the development of the B-double and has been at the forefront of PBS discussions from the outset, shares Britnell’s frustrations.

“If anytime this country is going to need a good transport productivity system it’s as we come out of Covid,” he said.

But until we have a consistent system of national uniformity with PBS assessments, he worries that the industry will continue to battle.

“At the end of the day, the roads are owned and managed by states and local governments and they’re seeing that as their way of controlling the performance and size of vehicles they’re going to have on their roads.

“I know of examples where trucks are running for a few kilometres as GML because the local council won’t allow HML, then running the next 1200-1500km as GML when they should be running at Higher Mass Limits. It’s just ridiculous.”

“It’s all about people having their little say in things and all too often these people are not truly qualified to be making these assessments.

“We don’t see many of these structures fail. I’m not saying they don’t, but this thing has got to be managed.

“At present it’s too easy for road managers to say no without having to justify the answer.”

Peter Anderson, CEO of the Victoria Transport Association, said there are other system restrictions in play that are compounding the PBS
issue in the state.

He told Big Rigs that the PBS system allows operators to live with false hope in improving productivity and safety due to the “mismatch” with the current access regime.

“While operators visualise greater productivity in the application of the Performance Based Standards regimes, when putting these vehicles on the road they are rejected due to other constraints associated with the capacities of the road infrastructure,” said Anderson.

“The current access processes are cumbersome, inhibitive and do not take in the requirements of the industry they are meant to serve.

“The lack of information retention, process cost gouging and slow response speeds means that the HV transport industry cannot service its client base and meet their requirements legally.”

Anderson said the current access regime is under review by DoT and the VTA has been constantly providing advice and information to assist in the development of new access plans and processes.

The NHVR, which approves PBS vehicle blueprints and final designs, declined the opportunity to comment for this story, but a spokesperson for DoT told us by way of an emailed statement that demands on its road network have changed significantly in recent years due to a construction boom and increases in
agricultural production.

“We understand the issues faced by industry and have been improving access to get goods where they need to go.”

“We’re working to further streamline heavy vehicle access in Victoria and allow safer and more environmentally-friendly vehicles on the network, while also balancing the needs of industry and the community.”

The DoT said up to a third of the freight and heavy haulage combinations that require a permit also require a structural assessment, although it dodged our direct question about why it cost operators so much. To reduce the number of structural assessments, the department added that it continues to expand the number of pre-approved and gazetted maps published on the
VicRoads website.

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