Australia’s addiction to truck-based road transport is costing us plenty, in terms of road damage alone. Heavy vehicles cause thousands of times more pavement damage than do cars, EVs and 4WDs.
On October 18, 2023, the High Court of Australia ruled that Victoria’s electric vehicle (EV) road tax was unconstitutional. This action focussed public attention on the question of what is a fair ‘user pays’ system for road financing.
Interestingly, the two EV-owning Victorian plaintiffs who brought the High Court action were supported by the Australian Attorney General and the Australian Trucking Association (ATA), while the Attorneys General of the other States and Territories supported the State of Victoria. Obviously, the ATA doesn’t want to encourage any form of additional road tax, while the Sates and Territories always want more money.
Back in 2020, when the Victorian EV tax was being proposed, Richard Dennis, from the Australia Institute, argued in The Guardian Australia that:
“Those who support a road user charge for electric vehicles are right to argue that someone has to pay for the building and maintenance of our roads, but to suggest taxing the pitifully low number of electric cars that are currently on our roads is simply bizarre.
“Undercharging trucks for the damage they do to our roads has led to a significant shift in Australia’s freight movements from rail to road.
“Each night more than 3000 trucks now drive between Sydney and Melbourne, while the share of rail freight between those cities has fallen from 20 percent to two percent since the 1990s,” Mr Dennis said.
This retrograde step is significant, because this article shows just how much damage heavy trucks do to Australia’s roads. There’s also the highly significant issue of air pollution.
Inadequate laws, along with government inaction, are contributing to an estimated 11,000 Australian premature deaths from transport pollution every year, according to a late-2023 report released by the Environmental Defenders Office.
Research shows people in Australia’s biggest cities, Sydney and Melbourne, are regularly exposed to transport pollution at levels harmful to health; particularly the health of children, pregnant women, the elderly and people living with disability and chronic diseases.
The report Toxic Transport: How Our Pollution Laws Are Failing to Protect Our Health found that Australian governments are failing to set targets and monitor air pollution that meet the World Health Organisation (WHO) air quality guidelines. As a result, there is an absence of measures to protect people from air pollution from transport.
The heaviest and fastest trucks in the world
Australia’s addiction to road transport has been increasing since the 1960s and has seen unprecedented growth in the size of trucks and truck fleets that continues unabated. Every request for bigger, heavier and longer trucks from the road transport lobby has been granted by governments, with the excuse being ‘productivity improvements’.
The average Australian linehaul truck combination is a B-Double that typically weighs 65 tonnes and travels legally at a speed-limited 105km/h. Many truck operators disable speed limiters on their vehicles and travel regularly at 110+km/h. (We’ve clocked some at GPS-confirmed speeds up to 145km/h on the NSW Hume Motorway.)
In most of the world, heavy trucks are restricted to around 42 tonnes weight and maximum speeds of 70-85km/h. The USA is an exception, with several states allowing trucks to achieve 80mph (130km/h), but truck weights on the Interstate highway system are restricted to 80,000 pounds (36.5 tonnes).
Under Australia’s Performance Based Standards regime, longer and heavier combinations have been approved for operations that have increasingly encroached on trafficked highways and metropolitan areas.
‘Super B-Doubles’, hauling two 40-foot ISO containers, were approved on some wharf-oriented routes in 2019 and quad-axled combinations are now being seen on highways as well.
The latest highway and metro-area inroads are being made by road trains that are disguised from public attention by being called ‘A-Doubles’.
These 30-metre-long combinations are actually Type One road trains, with shortened drawbars, pulling two full-sized semi-trailers and weighing more than 80 tonnes. (The ‘A’ comes from the A-frame shape of the drawbar on the second trailer dolly.)
The idea of ‘sanitising’ heavy truck nomenclature dates back to the introduction of B-Doubles, back in 1984. (The ‘B’ comes from the type of trailer coupling: a fifth wheel or turntable.)
Originally, in Canada, where the B-Double concept began, it’s still known as a B-Train, but the name was changed in Australia, because road transport authorities, road transport operators and pollies were concerned about ‘selling’ the idea of road trains operating in metro electorates.
The same euphemism tactic has been used with the 2020s’ naming of Type One road trains as ‘A-Doubles’.
The first A-Doubles operated as tankers and container haulers, on multi-lane roads, without causing a major outcry. It’s possible most car drivers thought they were B-Doubles, but since their limited introduction A-Doubles have proliferated and now they’re involved in refrigerated and general freight transport.
However, the Australian Trucking Association isn’t happy with what it sees as delays in expanding the operations of these longer and heavier trucks. In November 2023, its CEO Mathew Munro said there had been little or no improvement since 2019 in broad measures of safety and productivity, and no progress on easy wins.
“For example, upgrading the Sheahan Bridge on the Hume Highway could enable modern A-Doubles to operate as general access vehicles between major freight hubs in Sydney and Melbourne,” Mathew Munro said.
“This would potentially improve productivity on each trip by around 33 percent.
“Similarly, upgrading the Bremer River Bridge on the Warrego Highway could facilitate modern A-Double movements into Brisbane and surrounds, with a similar productivity improvement expected.”
A-Doubles are supposedly restricted to 90km/h, but OTA has witnessed several of these container-carrying combinations having impromptu races – side by side – across three lanes of Sydney’s M5 motorway. It’s only a matter of time before these suburban A-Doubles are involved in major incidents.
Road damage culprits
The Australia Institute’s allegation that trucks don’t pay for the road damage they cause is easily proved by employing the US-developed Generalized Fourth Power Law. This law resulted from the 1950s’ AASHO Road Test that was conducted by the American Association of State Highway Officials (AASHO), on roads that were allowed to degrade progressively.
The AASHO test was fatally uncompromising, resulting in 141 truck crashes and the loss of two lives.
Although now 70 years old, the Fourth Power Law is still used by road engineers to assess the amount of pavement damage caused by vehicles with different axle weights.
This simple formula compares the weight on one axle of one type of vehicle with the weight on one axle of another type vehicle and cubes the resultant difference, for an accurate prediction of likely road damage caused by the heavier axle.
So, in the case of a loaded SUV that weighs two tonnes, each axle carries approximately one tonne. A typical loaded B-Double heavy truck combination weighs 65 tonnes and each axle averages approximately seven tonnes.
Putting those comparative figures into the Fourth Power equation results in a staggering figure of (7)4 – 2401 – times more damage per axle in the case of the truck combination.
However, that gets much worse when you consider that the passage of a car over a certain piece of pavement involves only two axles, where the B-Double has nine, so the real world effect is 2401 x 9/2 = 10,804 times more damage, in the case of the B-Double.
That’s why road construction engineers don’t even consider the weight of cars when they’re calculating road pavement strength and that makes nonsense of the suggestion that EV cars need to pay more for road use than normal vehicles.
There’s ample evidence of the amount of damage heavy trucks cause to our roads. The Hume Highway at Marulan in NSW was a classic example in 2023, because the concrete pavement had become badly damaged from around 2020, to the point where ‘rough surface’ warning signs were put up.
However, the north and south left lanes adjacent to the Transport for NSW weighbridge remained relatively undamaged, because heavy trucks had to enter the weighbridge and those short sections were truck-free.
Other typical image includes ‘rutting’, where truck tyres deform asphalt surfaces and depressed and broken road edges.
This bad situation is about get worse, because the arrival of battery electric trucks is about to be matched by an increase in legally permitted axle weights. The reason is that battery-electric trucks (BEVs) are heavier than diesel-powered trucks and will suffer payload penalties unless axle weights are increased.
In November 2023 the Victorian Department of Transport granted a three-year permit to Volvo Group Australia to operate a battery electric semi-trailer combination with a steer axle load of up to 7.5 tonnes on a network of state-owned roads. (The nationally recognised steer axle limit is currently 6.5 tonnes.) Other States and Territories are expected to follow Victoria’s lead.
In this story we’ve focussed on damage to paved roads, but corrugations are another form of road damage. However, all vehicles create corrugations, so we’ve covered that topic separately.
Do trucks pay their way
Heavy vehicle charges aim to recover heavy vehicle related expenditure on roads from heavy vehicle operators. This allows governments to invest in building and maintaining productive and safer roads. Charges are a combination of annual registration fees and fuel-based road user charges.
The revenue from the fuel-based road user charge is collected by the Commonwealth Government.
The revenue raised by registration charges is collected by state and territory governments. The regulatory component of the registration charge is passed onto the National Heavy Vehicle Regulator by participating states and territories.
Multi-combination prime mover registration in 2022 was $13,077 and trailer registration was $1800 for each trailer – $3600 for a B-Double trailer set. That’s a total registration cost of $16,677.
Typical car registration cost was $500, so if the Fourth Power calculation was applied, a B-Double should be paying around $5,400,000!
However, registration charges alone aren’t expected to pay for road damage, because fuel excise on every litre is a contributor. The only fair way to compare excise contributions by cars and trucks is in terms of cents paid per tonne-kilometre travelled.
Heavy vehicles get an excise rebate that cars don’t receive, so if we compare typical fuel consumption and resulting excise payments by cars and heavy trucks it looks like this:
Gross mass 2t (Car) 65t (Truck)
Fuel consumption 10L/100km 65L/100km
Excise 48.8 cents/L 26.4 cents/L
Cents per tonne-km 2.44 0.264
Truck excise contributions are scheduled to rise until reaching 32.4 cents/L in 2025, but that makes the truck contribution still only 0.324 cents/L.
In 2020 the Australia Institute calculated that heavy trucks were paying around 12.5 percent of Australia’s land transport taxes, whereas in New Zealand they pay 37 percent.
“If we want to find an equitable and efficient way to charge for our roads, Australian governments should listen to the National Transport Commission and significantly increase the taxes paid by heavy vehicles,” the Australia Institute’s Richard Denniss told The Guardian.
“Making trucks pay for the damage they cause will raise a lot more money, deliver a large reduction in emissions and reduce the death toll on our roads.
“But it would upset powerful industries, so don’t hold your breath – even as the subsidised diesel particulates fill your lungs.”
Increased rail freight could ease road trauma
In November 2023, Federal Minister for Infrastructure, Transport, Regional Development and Communities, Catherine King, together with the Australasian Railway Association and key industry representatives, released research that was led by the Australasian Centre for Rail Innovation (ACRI), with input from the ARA and Freight on Rail Group (FORG), and supported by the Department of Infrastructure, Transport, Regional Development, Communications and the Arts.
ARA CEO Caroline Wilkie said the research found the underutilisation of rail freight is a missed opportunity that is costing the Australian economy and stands in the way of reaching net zero targets.
“Our freight task is significant and growing and we need a resilient, reliable and efficient national rail freight network to support the economy and community,” Ms Wilkie said.
“Road and shipping cannot alone meet this demand, and new policies and more strategic investment are needed to support greater use of rail.”
Previous ARA research showed that a 10 percent mode shift away from road to rail between major capital cities in Australia would reduce the social costs created through emissions, crashes and accidents and health costs from emissions, with total estimated benefits of more than $700 million per year.
Rail’s share of inter-capital freight is only 11 percent across the Eastern seaboard, and as little as two per cent on Australia’s busiest freight corridor between Melbourne and Sydney, the research showed. Only 28 percent is on rail between Melbourne and Brisbane, the future service area for the Inland Rail project.
FORG Chairman and Aurizon Managing Director & Chief Executive Officer Andrew Harding said boosting the role of rail freight on key interstate freight routes, particularly between Melbourne-Sydney-Brisbane, should be a key focus for governments and the rail industry.
Some of the constraints identified as hampering rail’s share of freight included: lack of a ‘level playing field’ between modes, making it harder to compete with road; lack of interoperability between jurisdictions, with rail operators using multiple networks to manage seven different regulatory frameworks; poor harmonisation of safety standards, operating rules and processes and regulations; rail infrastructure gaps impacting transit time, reliability and availability; no national body to mandate harmonised principles, standards and processes; and lack of transparent freight data and accurate cost benefit analysis in determining private and public investments infrastructure.
The research suggests several practical steps to increasing mode share of rail, including: investments in infrastructure with a focus on resilience and reliability initiatives; enhanced collection of road and rail use and train service reliability data; and a review of cost-benefit analyses to ensure economic, social and environmental benefits are fully considered in rail/road investment decisions.
The Australasian Railway Association (ARA) welcomed the late-2023 National Rail Procurement and Manufacturing Strategy as a significant step towards increasing productivity and growth in the rail industry.
The Strategy, released in November 2023 by by the Federal Government, outlines several actions required to achieve a more sustainable and competitive rail manufacturing sector.
The ARA’s CEO Caroline Wilkie said the industry has advocated strongly for better harmonisation across the country since the Office of National Rail Industry Coordination (ONRIC) was formed last year.
“For far too long, the rail industry has had to grapple with a lack of harmonisation across networks, dampening competitiveness, significantly increasing costs and constraining investment,” Ms Wilkie said.
“The rail industry urgently needs a national approach to procurement to help drive productivity and innovation as it delivers a $154 billion pipeline over the next 15 years.”
The Strategy, under the National Rail Manufacturing Plan, focuses on developing a nationally coordinated approach to rolling stock procurement, harmonising standards for manufacturing rolling stock, adopting a national local content approach and maximising opportunities for freight and heavy haul rail manufacturing.
The Strategy is part of the National Rail Manufacturing Plan, announced in the 2022-23 Budget.
An ARA report last year found taxpayers would have saved $1.85 billion over the past 10 years if state rolling stock contracts had been better coordinated.
Separate ARA research also confirmed the current uncoordinated approach to type approval processes by procurers is costing the rail industry $230 million per year.
Ms Wilkie said the current state-based local content policies between jurisdictions led to duplication of facilities and made it hard for organisations to bid for key contracts.
“Building more trains locally will lead to an increase in local, skilled manufacturing jobs and bolster export opportunities for local businesses,” Ms Wilkie said.
“The ARA welcomes this Strategy as a significant step towards a more sustainable, safe and productive industry by providing a platform for collaboration and coordination.
“The ARA looks forward to working closely with governments and the Rail Industry Innovation Council on the Strategy to support increased competitiveness, innovation, and growth within the rail manufacturing industry.”
The rail rolling stock manufacturing and repair industry has a revenue of just over $2.4 billion and a direct value-added of $515 million.
We live in hope!