In Australia, many people talk about the tyranny of distance and in Western Australia the trucking industry is defined by the massive distances trucks have to cover. The state is also isolated from the rest of the country and the vast majority of all its transport operations take place within the state, albeit a massive state.
This distance has enabled the WA trucking industry to develop almost independently of the rest of Australia and remains little influenced by what is going on in the Eastern States. As a result, not only has the industry developed separately but so has industry regulation, with a closer and more collaborative relationship between the trucking industry and the government department whose task it is to regulate it.
These differences have created issues for operators from the east wanting to work in the west and for those who operate back and forth across the Nullarbor. However, for the WA operator, a number of pragmatic regulations and permit schemes mean they can employ high productivity vehicles in different combinations with the blessing of the regulator.
One of the first things any trucking person will notice on the roads in the west is the prevalence of the eight wheeler truck both as a rigid and as a prime mover. There is also a high percentage of tri-axle dollies as opposed to the tandem dollies we see, most of the time, east of the Nullarbor. The philosophy of the road managers is to get the trucking operators to spread the weight over as many axles as possible in order to preserve their precious road pavement. Another factor may also be the low number of bridges, especially older ones, in WA.
One of the many operators able to benefit from this more enlightened attitude on the part of the regulators, is Gilmour Bulk Haulage, based on the northern end of Perth. The company specialises in hauling bulk materials in and out of the country areas of Western Australia and most of its trucks use twin steer prime movers.
Gilmour uses tri-axle dollies, so with an 8×4 prime mover there is a total of 13 axles on the ground. These combinations can run at 92.5 tonne. The concessional mass limit of these trucks is 98 tonne. Using a 6×4 prime mover, the allowance is lower at 87.5 tonne, this extends to 94 tonne under the concessional scheme.
“I've been in trucks 38 years,” says Peter Gilmour. “I started driving trucks when I was 18 and I started my own business when I was 24, working on road trains. I started on the east/west run and I didn't find that any good. Then we got involved in a lot of fertiliser spreading. I'm a country boy, from Carnamah originally.
“We probably got into running road trains about 15 years ago. We started with just one then it grew to two and then three and so on. The fleet consists of six Volvos and two Kenworths. Two of the prime movers are 6×4 with the others being 8×4. It is not worth running them as triple road trains, they are run as doubles all the time.
“I've tried breaking them down and then making them up into triples again and it just doesn't work on this job. A lot of people disagree with me but with the double road train combination I can go anywhere in Western Australia. There are no issues with access anywhere. It's simply a matter of go, get loaded and then you are gone, drivers are not sitting around waiting for a third trailer. We find them more productive to work with as they are instead of having to wait around for that third trailer.”
Gilmour runs eight road trains in and out of its home base in Noranda. Most of the time the trucks carry ammonium nitrate from the Perth area heading north to the farming areas. On the return journey they will pick up a wide variety of bulk product depending on the season and the region. The company also runs two sets of tankers. These work in the same area handling liquid products for customers.
Under prescriptive regulations the two steer axles have a weight allowance of 11 tonnes. However, Peter insists the road trains are more stable if the operator is able to run with 12 tonnes on the front end of the prime mover, when working at these kinds of weights.
“I am targeting being able to go to 12 tonne over the front two axles,” says Peter. “That would make it perform even better. I would like to be able to run my 8×4 prime movers as 12 tonne steer axles and 18 tonne drive axles. We are looking at putting in an application to WA Main Roads under the concessional mass scheme to see if we can get this passed in the near future. We are going down the road of saying that running at these weights, it makes the vehicle more stable. I know it does because I've tried it. There's no logic to it, why it ever started at 11 tonne beats me anyway.”
Peter believes the fatigue management system used in WA works a lot better than the eastern states’ system. He is pleased the WA representatives have been fighting hard to maintain the status quo in the face of pressure from the new NHVR. He is adamant the best way to fight fatigue is on a pragmatic basis, in a system like that used in WA.
“Why don't they have a look at our system, because it works. The East Coast are the ones who've got to change, not us,” says Peter. “People over in the east need to come over here and see how we do things. We go slower, we are more productive and, financially, at the end of the day, we win. Their system is not working.
“For me, running at the weights we do, I would like all of my trucks to be limited to 90km/h. However, it is far too dangerous, I thought about doing it but it makes it difficult for trucks to overtake. I have one driver who is happy to religiously sit on 90, the truck sits on the road a lot better and the journey is not as stressful. The difference in journey time from here to Kalgoorlie is only about 20 minutes. I don't understand, I pay my drivers by the hour and they sit on 100km/h. If they sat at 90km/h they would save me money, in terms of fuel, and they would get paid more.
“Fuel consumption depends on who is behind the wheel. It's impossible to get guys to stick at 90km/h. We used to have a 90km/h limit here in WA and I think the worst thing they ever did was put it up to 100km/h. Now everyone wants to do 110km/h. The trucks are supposed to be going 100, but they are not. You could put a meter on any truck and I can guarantee you, they will be doing 100km/h plus.”
One of the limitations to the fleet is the ability to get good drivers to handle the road trains. If Peter could get more drivers, he would probably expand the fleet. He is currently trying to recruit drivers from other states, including Victoria and the Northern Territory.
The company is not losing drivers to the mining industry as those working for Gilmour can achieve a take home pay comparable with what they can earn working with the mining companies, with the added advantage of being home twice a week. It is still important to get the right kind of driver to suit the kind of work the company performs.
Western Australia is the fastest moving part of our two-speed economy and continued economic growth looks set to continue, stimulating further growth in the freight task. Many of the national transport companies are extending their involvement in WA and tendering for work, traditionally handled by local or specialist operators.
“Mining has attracted everyone because they can see the quick quid in it. Things are booming, the state is going to be the place to be over the next five years,” says Peter. “With these big companies coming in, we have seen it all before, they come in, they go away, they come in and they go away.
“I am a lot more cautious now, since the GFC, than I was before. We are very cautious, and the worst thing is no one will put any commitment on paper. We cannot get contracts, we are just working on the basis of a verbal agreement, week to week. I tell them that we can go and buy some gear but we need something in writing. At the same time, the bank wants blood out of a stone.
“Things are starting to turn around. I don't think we'll be downsizing, my wife would love me to. When I look at the work we've got ahead of us, we have to stay at least the same size as we are now. There is a possibility we may have to grow, I am having to give a lot of work away at the moment to subcontractors and my customers don't like subbies on some of the jobs.”
Controlling costs is just as vital as keeping the work coming in. In the period of expansion before the GFC struck, Peter says the company took its eye off the ball a little when considering running costs. Drivers now get a weekly bonus if there are no incidents and he believes this incentivises drivers to make sure everything is running smoothly and make sure preventative maintenance is being done.
One of the areas where costs have been creating a problem for Peter is in steer tyre wear. The twin steer prime movers have been suffering excessive wear and tyre scalloping has made the trucks uncomfortable to drive.
“We never used to have this much trouble, we used to get 80,000 to 100,000 kilometres out of a tyre. Now, we are not getting the kilometres out of the tyres. We are constantly trying to overcome this by swapping tyres from the front to the rear axle and then turning them around.
“We can't run a tyre on the same hub for more than 20,000km. But now, whatever the Truck Whisperer has done to the whole fleet, they are driving straight down the middle of the road. We put a new set of tyres on the front axle but left the other tyres. We found that the scalloped tyres on the second steering axle flattened out after a while. So we immediately picked up good tyre wear. If they are not scalloped we can run them out through the trailers after a while.
“We had tried things like doing the wheel alignment, using balance powder and we were checking the balancing all of the time. We thought it was a balance problem, a shock absorber problem, the list goes on and on. Everyone tells you something different. These were brand-new trucks we were talking about, not old trucks.”
Getting it right with twin steer tyres may only be an issue for the relatively small WA transport industry. Eight wheeler prime movers are uncommon elsewhere in Australia. South Australia may only allow six tonnes of the front two axles in some circumstances. In other parts of the world the twin steer trucks will not be running at high speeds on the highway or at masses of around 100 tonnes. This can leave the truckies of WA a little isolated, not just geographically but also in the sort of problems their kind of work can create.