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Interview with Jonathan Bhana-Thomson, Chief Executive of New Zealand Heavy Haulage Association

Data Blocks
Data Blocks

Jonathan Bhana-Thomson is practically the face of the overdimension and overweight transport industry in New Zealand. Having spent 22 years with New Zealand Heavy Haulage Association, 19 of those as Chief Executive, Jonathan’s understanding of this highly specialised sector of the freight industry is unparalleled. He is instrumental in lobbying NZTA and local roading authorities to keep main routes open, safe and efficient for oversized loads. Teletrac Navman picked his brains about the issues, opportunities and wishes of the heavy haulage industry as it recalibrates following Covid-19 lockdowns and restrictions.

“With demand picking up, more and more oversized loads need to be moved around New Zealand. Even though heavy haulage makes up only a small fraction of traffic on our roads, we hope the government agencies and authorities still consider them when they design, plan and manage our roads. It makes sense because at the end of the day it will keep all road users safe and operators can work better and more efficiently.”

Tell us what is the state of the heavy haulage industry in New Zealand now?

The state of our industry has been surprisingly good since we came out of Covid-19.

When we were under level 4 lockdown, most of our members who service the construction industry saw their work grind to a halt. Building sites were closed and many of the supporting services, for example house movers, couldn’t get supplies to put houses on foundations. And those that were built, inspectors from councils could not look at the buildings either. We were not seen as essential compared to the freight sector. So, when lockdown was lifted, there was a lot of catching up to do. This year in particular, we are seeing high demand for our services to clients, as developers are ramping up work and needing large items to be transported from source to site. There have been some regional variations— the North Island being busier than the South generally. One-third of HHA’s members are based in Auckland, Waikato and Bay of Plenty with the rest spread between Kaitaia in the north and Invercargill in the south.

You mentioned the oversized freight industry is busy post lockdown and identified some of the key sectors that are keeping things busy. Are there any wins and challenges that come with this surge in activity?

Construction has led the way in demand of services to support housing and commercial projects and civil works. Some of them are ongoing—like Transmission Gully, the four-lane state highway north of Wellington, for example. Several of the association’s members have been involved in that from the beginning, moving earth, prefabricated components and large equipment machinery like excavators and diggers needed to do the work. Others are primarily requests from the house-moving sector—transporting recycled homes from one site to another, or prefabricated new houses from factory to foundations. In the last few months especially, the construction sector has driven demands for our members, particularly the government-driven job-generating Shovel Ready projects.

What are some recent wins and challenges you are seeing for the heavy haulage industry?

I’d say a major win for the industry is folks being kept busy. And as long as there is demand for services, transport operators will have the confidence in investing in new trailers and technology. It’s a win-win for everyone.

Another innovation is an acceleration of the roll-out of weigh-in motion sites across the country, which is good news as it will lead to a more level playing field for operators. An electronic sign will instruct trucks to pull over at an upcoming weigh station. This will encourage more compliance as operators will not want their trucks pulled in on a frequent basis to conduct an enforcement weigh, so losing valuable time. 

I’d say the challenge we have is like most sectors across New Zealand— heavy haulage is experiencing skills shortage. Many members have shared how difficult it is to get transporter drivers and support staff. The dearth of drivers means they are easily pinched from one operator to another. A heavy haulage driver typically needs some freight transport experience to begin with, plus the added know-hows of the rules of oversized loads and dealing with those rules.

How do you feel technology can improve the heavy haulage industry?

There is a wide variety of ways that technology can improve the heavy haulage industry. In-built scales and tyre monitoring technology are some examples of how technology improves efficiency and maintenance. In addition, there are various safety innovations that are being looked at through the lens of technology – such as safety around ramps on the back of trailers, which could employ various technological solutions to ensure that this is not a risk area for drivers and operators.

For the on-road transport of heavy overweight loads, technology could be used to ensure compliance with bridge crossing restrictions where these are required - in terms of bridge identification and speed management. For overweight and over dimension permits, 24/7 access to the issuing of permits and the required notification of load movements to various other parties could be facilitated by technology.

Does the industry have a wish list of what they would like to see in the near future?  

We’d like Waka Kotahi NZ Transport Agency to completely reform the application, processing and issuing of over-dimension permits. Currently, the process is not that user friendly. We would also like permits to be able to be applied in real time and ideally, better integrated with overweight permits. The potential to digitalise overweight and over-dimension permit application is massive.

Another area for operators to invest in to increase productivity and prioritise safety of the workforce is technology.Being able to alert pilots of approaching bridges with GPS and geofencing features, for example, can help them be more efficient and safer, benefitting the industry all round.

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