Choke Points

Australian roadtrain in Queensland.

An unforgettable line by John Keegan written about Alexander in Mask of Command bears repeating: “He saw the Persians for all their material superiority were vulnerable to the confrontation of a superior will, and of the strength of his will he had no doubt.”

A couple of years ago Peter Fox relayed a decision Linfox had made internally to drastically flatten its management structure so that it could move more decisively.

They were made aware, as a big business, that when it came to its ability to act, there were simply too many decision-makers in the chain.

The process in place to facilitate deliberate actions had created choke points.

Administration, in theory, is supposed to sharpen the capacity to foresee the consequence of any action.

But as we know, over cautious processes designed to remove risk can summon forth inertia.

That brings us to infrastructure. Close to 40 per cent of Australia’s entire GDP originates in the Pilbara.

Its value to the national interest, at least under the current economic model, cannot be doubted. When it comes to defence assets assigned to the area there is little to speak of.

Mapping undertaken of the key Australian freight networks by the National Freight Data Hub and CSIRO’s Supply Chain Benchmarking Dashboard, used in the Road and Rail Supply Chain Resilience Review, found the most vulnerable networks were the north-south network, east-west rail corridor and the network that connects Perth to Darwin.

Two of Australia’s three major military bases, as Cameron Dumnesy has rightly pointed out, are on two of these networks.

The report notes that “breakage points assessed on these routes carry approximately 30 million tonnes of freight annually and in some cases of disruption, would be too much to practically mode shift to road.”

Impacts on the network in recent years from adverse weather events for the communities and carriers most affected by them, has required intervention by state governments and regulators most usually in the form of exemption notices for high productivity vehicles, such as B-triples, rerouted thousands of kilometres at great expense and logistical undertaking.

The report released by the Bureau of Infrastructure and Transport Research Economics in February of this year noted that, “disruption to these routes would impact hundreds of LGAs along their length and beyond and could result in some communities being completely cut off from essential freight using these routes.”

Finding a singular, coordinating authority to fortify the national freight network with a centralised alert system is gathering support among those jurisdictions that have felt the brunt of floods and bushfires already this decade.

A site that integrates alerts and no-go zones across all states with real-time updates on road closures (and openings), flooded or otherwise damaged infrastructure and hazardous conditions should be, one might hope, already in development.

An emergency transcontinental task shouldered by truck under serious load through or around an area ravaged by natural disaster shouldn’t be made more difficult by bureauracy.

Governments, given their co-ordinated responses to Broome and Swan Hill, at least fundamentally understand this.

What makes leadership potent, after all, is the will to act. Main Roads WA, one of the representative bodies most impacted by these flood events, is doing a lot of the heavy lifting to widen the coalition invested in this conversation.

These gathering voices, just as vulnerable parts of the network ready for the height of summer and, in some parts, wet season, will need to get louder before they are rent apart by supervisory committees.

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