Chain of Command

Carrying the largest jet fuel spec’d fleet in the country, Hills Tankers possesses over 100 prime movers that it deploys along the northern eastern seaboard servicing airports, mines, retail outlets and military bases.
Hills Tankers MAN TGS.

An airport like Coolangatta is a nexus for economic interests even before a tourist steps off a plane.

Hundreds of other service-orientated businesses converge here daily to help maintain infrastructure vital to the Gold Coast whose growing population is no longer strictly a consequence of seasonal activity.

In recent years the airport has undergone myriad upgrades to fortify, for instance, its fuel infrastructure as part of an ongoing project to provide it with greater flexibility during peak times and busy periods, which for any world-renowned holiday destination, can surge to many times the customary capacity.

An event like the Magic Millions race in January alone attracts 19,000 unique travellers to Coolangatta.

The airport, starting in 2018, underwent an $86 million airside upgrade that expanded the apron 20,000m2 to facilitate four additional aircraft, and a new taxiway.

Further reconfiguration of the apron layout since then now allows the flexibility to switch between narrow and wide body aircraft depending on demand.

Through a joint venture between Caltex and BP for fuel operations at the airport, 900 metres of new underground hydrant pipe to reticulate fuel, 31 new hydrant points for refuelling, two new underground valve chambers and relocation of all existing aircraft bays along the front of the terminal have also taken place.

Surges have made these changes necessary. Hills Tankers, a family-owned fuel carrier, delivers jet fuel on four dedicated A- and B-double units here seven days a week.

Earlier this year, it introduced a third generation MAN TGS 540hp prime mover on this run. The new truck has impressed to the point the other three vehicles will be converted to MANs by the end of the year according to Scott Cullen, Hills Tankers Chief Operations Officer.

“The driver acceptance has been outstanding,” he says. “Fuel economy, according to our data, is awesome. They feature all the latest safety tech and intelligent cruise paired with the Brakematic descent control but they’re also simple to operate. That’s what the drivers especially love about them.”

Scott Cullen with Jayme Deves, MAN Trucks SEQ.
Scott Cullen with Jayme Deves, MAN Trucks SEQ.

The third generation TGS 13-litre 540hp is undoubtedly a sophisticated modern commercial vehicle. The Smart Select control module for the 12.3-inch screen of the navigation system and the return to neutral gear selector, are among the notable new features.

That said, activating the primary functions can all be done via switch. Operation isn’t made unintelligible through a dependence on a digital interface.

“Some of the OEMs have gone too far with the technology in the cab and the drivers don’t like it,” says Scott. “They’re driving along at 2am trying to work through an electronic screen when they just want to turn the lights on.”

The MAN TGS 540 is part of a recent order that included two new generation MAN TGS 440s that are working on retail deliveries in Brisbane with six more expected later this year and a further seven units due early next year.

“The new 440s are delivering around 2.7 kms/l on the metro circuit which is phenomenal,” says Scott. “It’s the quietest truck our operators have ever driven.”

These trucks are all operating out of Brisbane, where Scott himself is based at Pinkenba. The new site, which is currently under council approval for a $5 million purpose-built facility with an internal wash for tankers, is fast turning into an operational hub.

They hope to turn soil by the end of the year. Scheduling in Brisbane recently expanded to 24/7. Members of the team are shifted on through the night to answer calls and respond to any fatigue incidents brought to their attention via Guardian’s Seeing Eye driver monitoring technology, which is being rolled out across the company. The TG3 MANs were the first vehicles in the fleet to be fitted with it. Drivers, according to Scott, were initially reluctant to use it.

“That all changed when they saw the results of the close calls some of the boys have had and it’s been very well accepted,” he says. “As far as ROI goes, the Seeing Machines tech is undeniable.”

A majority of the fleet runs 24/7 aside from 17 vehicles that ferry lubricants up and down the eastern seaboard. Hills Tankers opts for Western Star and Kenworth trucks in this application.

The Penske connection was inaugurated through Head of Western Star Trucks, Kurt Dein and previous General Manager Peter Blair, who sadly passed away in February. Peter’s loss is still being felt. He had been with the company for 11 years having taken it in that time from 20 trucks to 100.

A new MAN TGS at work in Brisbane for Hills Tankers.

The fleet amassed 27 million kilometres last year running between Sydney and Townsville, two of the cities in which it has depots. It also maintains sites in Brisbane, Gladstone, Mackay and its head office in Newcastle. Hills Tankers already plans on assigning A-doubles at 81.5 tonnes to new MAN TGX 580s and 640s already on order. The business runs nine high productivity combinations from Brisbane to the Gold Coast and in Sydney on HML permit.

“We were the first company to run A-doubles on fuel down the eastern seaboard,” says Scott. “Our first A-double set is about to turn ten years old.”

Current driver shortages have only made Performance-Based Standards (PBS) an even better value proposition. It’s one of the biggest growing parts of the business according to Scott.

“We’re constantly working with our tanker manufacturers on it and we’re coming up with some different combinations in the future we’re excited about,” he says. “It’s part of staying sustainable. The less drivers you’ve got the more fuel you need to hang on the back of the vehicles. The more loads you drop off the road, the more carbon you save, the more environmentally friendly it is for everyone.”

Hills Tankers currently carries ten PBS combinations in the fleet with another six on order. Some of those will be new to Brisbane and a couple will be new to industry outright come Q1 next year.

“It’s exciting to push the envelope in these new areas,” says Scott. “You need to stay in front of the game. Everyone can cart fuel. It’s how you do it differently that makes you the place that people want to work and the place of choice for customers.”

Tanker builds across the fleet originate with one of two brands: Holmwood Highgate or Tieman. It’s not hard to see why PBS will continue to be an important factor going forward.

Hills Tankers currently employs 270 drivers. The trucks are split between three drivers. One on day shift, one on night shift and the other for scheduled days off.

First shift commences usually between midnight and 3am. This is to get loaded and out of cities before the traffic starts with drivers at their freshest at the highest fatigue part of the day says Scott.

“If they start, say, at 2am, by the time they load and the sun is up they are away in the daylight,” says Scott. “You’re not battling the end of your shift at 4am.”

Attracting drivers is an industry wide battle for transport companies. For Hills Tankers, however, relief is on hand. The company is now in the best position it’s been in since 2019. Rising interest rates may also have something to do with it.

“It’s getting much easier to find them,” Scott says. “There are real signs of change. The depots haven’t had this many drivers in a while.”

A new operations scheduling system known as Form Bird has recently been introduced in Brisbane that will optimise routes and load profiling across the entire fleet according to Scott.

“Opturion is the optimisation system it runs through,” says Scott. “This will significantly reduce both man hours required to schedule the fleet and also human error involved with entering loads.”

An offer proposed by Penske Australia, who initially approached Hills Tankers, to trial a previous model MAN TGS 540 instigated the latest substantial orders. After 18 months on high pressure work with more than 520,000kms on the dial that vehicle surpassed several lofty benchmarks. It didn’t hurt that the drivers also loved it.

“Penske have been great to us and the best part, for me, is being able to walk into any branch and they know you by name,” says Scott. “They actually care which is really nice.”

Penske Australia opened a second Brisbane branch late last year in Lytton. It can’t be underestimated, as a development, what this has done for the relationship with nearby Hills Tankers. The family company, owned to this day by Andrew and Vicki Hill, has forged a legacy as a durable relationship-based partner in the supply chain.

Holmwood Highgate 33,500-litre diesel payload on retail assignment in Brisbane metro.
Holmwood Highgate 33,500-litre diesel payload on retail assignment in Brisbane metro.

“We enjoy strong relationships with our customers and suppliers,” says Scott. “The new facility at Lytton puts Penske on our back step now and it’s a big reason for committing to more of their product which has been very good to us for a long time and makes it more viable.”

Lytton of course is the site of an oil refinery; a facility Hills Tankers also runs out of.  The refinery is undergoing infrastructure upgrades, budgeted at around $125 million, to accelerate the introduction of ultra-low sulphur petrol as part of a Fuel Security package first announced by the Federal Government in 2021. Hills Tankers trucks are prominent leaving here for airports in Rockhampton, Wellcamp and the air force base at Amberley.

The fleet also services Williamtown air base and provides fuel for the entire Westpac regional helicopter squadron in NSW. These exercises, if nothing else, make conscious the perpetual chain that overlays the key infrastructure requisite to our national sovereignty.

Without trucks Australia stops is the now familiar rallying cry common to industry. No road transport carrier perhaps embodies the burden of this responsibility better than Hills Tankers.

“As the largest jet fuel truck fleet in the country it’s a dynamic place to work,” says Scott. “The company is rolling along nicely, as it has done so for a long time.”

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