Transport heavies choke on Customs system upgrade, ready or not

The dreaded spectre of cargo rotting on docks and at airports is again haunting airlines, stevedores and shipping lines, which face a desperate battle to make their IT systems interoperate with the export phase of the Australian Customs Service's now infamous, $146 million, Integrated Cargo System (ICS).

It is only six weeks before ICS goes live on October 6 and the number of "high priority" transactional bugs plaguing ICS has skyrocketed over the last month.

Customs documents obtained by Computerworld reveal at least 44 "high priority incidents" (official terminology for bugs and errors) in the exports phase of ICS remain unfixed.

Disturbingly, the documents also reveal Australia's largest transport companies, which move around 80 percent of exports leaving Australia, are having the most trouble getting their transactions through ICS.

Systems from Qantas, Patrick Corporation, and Patrick and P&O Ports' joint venture 1-Stop, account for more than half the current high-priority incident list - with other transport companies - including FedEx, DHL and OOCL - citing testing anomalies.

1-Stop project manager for integration (Australian Customs Cargo Management Re-engineering) Ruth Thompson said the short run-up time between the October 6 cut-over deadline and the ICS system being available for reliable testing was still causing problems for users.

"We will have to do it in six weeks because six weeks is all we have. If [cargo] sits on the docks [because ICS doesn't function properly] Customs will have to take some responsibility for that," Thompson said.

Apart from ICS still not performing as required under transaction-volume load testing, Thompson said end users, such as ports and stevedores, faced the additional challenge of learning how to use a largely unfamiliar system "at the terminal gate".

The matter is further compounded because Customs will soon issue each consignment of outbound cargo a "load status" (or clearance to load) from the terminal gate, whereas outbound manifests have to date been reconciled, after loading, between exporter, shipper and Customs. If system users cannot obtain a Customs "load status", freight cannot be legally loaded, leading to the likelihood of substantial bottlenecks. Qantas corporate affairs was unable to comment before print deadline.

A spokesman for Customs Minister Chris Ellison said the agency had received no correspondence from customers asking for an extension of the ICS testing period, adding Customs had worked "very closely with industry" on the ICS rollout.

"We laid out a pretty clear timetable for ICS. We've been working very closely with industry to be sure they are ready," the spokesman said. Customs is still to commence testing of the imports phase of ICS, which is generally estimated to be at least 20 times more complex than the exports phase. While the cutover date for ICS imports has been set by Customs for mid-2005, delays of at least another year are widely anticipated.

More than seven years to this point of readiness, ICS is a cornerstone of Customs' massive Cargo Management Re-engineering (CMR) project, which will replace the export and brokerage industry-developed EDI system, Customs Connect. CMR is a Web-based model co-developed by Customs and a consortium of IT vendors led by Computer Associates, EDS, IBM and Telstra nee Kaz.

The project aims to facilitate all aspects of Customs involvement in the import-export process, not least the clearance of goods leaving Australia and the collection of GST on goods entering it.

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More about Australian Customs & Border Protection ServiceCA TechnologiesEDS AustraliaFedExIBM AustraliaPATRICK CORPORATIONQantasTelstra Corporation

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