Much to ponder

In June 2023, Carrier's Corner7 MinutesBy Blake NobleJuly 18, 2023

Vast and varied musings from an overthinking transport operator…

As I sit here venting away on the (transport) world around me, Auckland is again in a state of emergency thanks to another spectacular deluge. Surely Mother Nature has just about run out of precipitation to throw on our direction?

Beyond keeping abreast of the gargantuan efforts of our team to navigate our fleet to higher ground safely, I’ve been intrigued by photos of suburban residents clearing blocked drains with an array of versatile garden implements. The intrigue isn’t directed at their impressive creativity and elbow grease, but rather that preventative drain clearing isn’t being done ahead of time by what is surely a record-sized fleet of vacuum and hydro trucks sitting across the country. No doubt it’s somehow linked to Covid-19, labour shortages, or any other raft of current ‘hot’ justifications.

In a very different vein, I was just as interested to see that March 2023 produced another new record of truck registrations. It’s intriguing because, for many, it’s the end of the financial year and we are trying to contain costs, and also because at a time when interest and vehicle pricing are at some of the highest rates seen in a very long time, the cost of acquisition is a somewhat different equation to what it might’ve been 12 months ago.

The former potentially highlights the profit that many companies were trying to reduce before year-end, and in the case of the latter, I’ll assume that a fair portion of the new registrations were long-held orders finally hitting New Zealand shores.

Lead times from cab and chassis suppliers and their bodybuilding peers wouldn’t suggest momentum will slow down. What’s become apparent, though, in my own fleet and involvement with other operations, is the double whammy that comes with these lead times and the additional costs they produce. There’s the purchase and interest costs and the unrequested ‘bonus’ in the extra 12 to 24 months of R&M on an asset we would rather have let go.

There’s no doubt fleet selection and ownership are a balancing act at the best of times, but the current necessity to manage the short- and long-term needs of one’s fleet at a time when we head into a potential economic storm, is cryptic at best!

Alas, we all know that supply challenges aren’t reserved solely for new asset purchases. Labour supply (a term I despise but seems to be the coined descriptor) continues to wreak havoc on businesses and industries countrywide. I was recently involved in recruitment in Central Auckland, which opened my eyes to the extent employers are currently going to retain staff at literally any cost. The wage rates and overall packages being put to some relatively inexperienced members of the workforce blew my mind, more so the cost and obligation that many operators were signing themselves up for in a bid to keep the driver’s seat warm.

While I accept the market forces at play, this will surely prove harmful to us all in the long-term through increasing our costs of doing business and ability to reinvest profits, and equally when we find ourselves having to drive a recruitment bargain with such rates and rewards in place.

As things toughen economically, I remain of the view that stability of employment and a focus on the smaller details will trump the heightened spot rates some may be projecting into the market. Operators may no longer be able to fund and justify all they lavishly roll out to lure recruits.

On the topic of comings and goings, it would be remiss of me not to acknowledge the contribution to the industry of Transporting New Zealand CEO Nick Leggett. Association allegiances aside – you may well have your own view on Nick’s contribution – few can deny the impact he’s had on heightening the media profile of our sector and generally putting a face to the industry in Wellington. I suspect Nick’s move to Infrastructure New Zealand will prove valuable for our industry; insiders suggest you can never have too many friends in the streets surrounding the Beehive.

My final rant also happens to link to infrastructure, sadly, this time concerning its misuse. Early on 17 May, just north of Hamilton, a driver decided to enter the Waikato Expressway the wrong way, rapidly driving towards oncoming traffic, tragically resulting in a double fatality.

One of our units was travelling in the lane directly adjacent to the vehicle that was hit and was party to some minor collateral damage.

Three things have resonated for me after this tragic event. First, even our newest and technically safest infrastructure can present immense risks to our teams when the human element is added – I’m sure the engineers behind the road design hadn’t ever factored in two-way traffic on the same side of the expressway!

Second, the necessity of well-designed infrastructure to prevent further impact on other road users – as much as we may dislike barriers, the fact there was one down the median of the road stopped further carnage in the adjacent lanes.

And, finally, the value of equipping our fleet with comprehensive telematic and camera equipment – the picture painted (and graphically replayed) after the event thanks to such technology is priceless and beyond valuable in piecing together the details.