Ken Walsh and I first met in late 2015 when the iron ore price plummeted to record lows.
Ken worked for Process Minerals International (PMI) a subsidiary of Mineral Resources and was responsible for the road freight operations of the junior iron ore minor.
I was called to Perth to meet with senior management and Ken to discuss how PBS could be used to improve road freight productivity in the Pilbara.
In the end we developed a range of 60-metre super quad, ultra-quad and quin roadtrain combinations and negotiated access to key roads in the Pilbara with Main Roads WA.
The fleet was rapidly converted and contributed to the continuing viability of iron ore operations based on road freight.
The road freight cost per tonne was reduced by around 15 per cent on volumes of 7 million tonnes per annum in one operation.
With Gross Combinations Masses (GCMs) of 200 tonnes the 60m PBS roadtrains were a significant productivity improvement compared to AAB-quad roadtrains which typically grossed out at 165 tonnes.
At the same time, we reviewed off-highway operations further south and put a plan in place to modify equipment and increase payloads by 25 per cent with GCMs north of 330 tonnes.
It was a detailed review that involved analysis of truck frames, engines, transmissions, axles suspensions, steering systems, couplings and vehicle dynamics.
We completed a comprehensive test program and were able to safely increase the productivity of that operation as well.
The significance of this result hit home when I was at the Heavy Vehicle Truck Technology (HVTT) Conference in New Zealand the following year.
A researcher presented a case study of a PBS combination they’d developed for an iron ore mine in Sweden.
The audience listed with great interest about what was essentially an A-double operating at around 90 tonnes GCM. Apparently, they had encountered some issues with vehicle stability.
When I asked the presenter over dinner if they’d resolved the problems, he said that they were not operating because the iron ore mine had become unviable and was closed when the iron ore price dropped.
This highlights just how critical freight productivity is for the international competitiveness of Australia’s bulk commodity exports. A few years back, Ken returned to NSW to help his brother Larry manage road freight operations for their 10,000 acres of cotton and wheat farms in the NSW Riverina. It was great to get a call from Ken and discuss what possibilities PBS might offer.
They had a Kenworth T909 towing a b-double tipper with sliding lead trailer which converted into a short roadtrain for the NSW roadtrain network.
Ken wanted to get access into Victoria all the way to the Port of Melbourne and Port of Geelong to deliver grain as an A-double at 85 tonnes.
Unfortunately, the existing combination with tri-axle dolly did not meet the required bridge axle spacings for access in Victoria and NSW were a long way from releasing their A-double networks.
Substantial modifications to the existing equipment didn’t make sense and Ken was planning on ordering a new A-double set, but the lead time on that equipment was some time away and he wanted to continue to make use of the existing equipment. Unfortunately, configuring an A-double for Victoria isn’t straight forward.
There are quite a few issues to consider and decisions to make.
Firstly, is it best to operate a tandem-axle or tri-axle dolly? Secondly, do you want to stick within the 30metre PBS Level 2B requirements, or lengthen the combination up to 36.5m with the prospect of higher weights on some bridges?
Also, is it worth persisting with existing trailing equipment or is it best to focus on a new complying A-double combination?
After reviewing the existing design and several phone calls do discuss the pros and cons of each, Ken eventually decided to apply for a permit with the existing A-double set in the knowledge that it was going to cost $10,000 or more for a bridge assessment.
There were of course no promises from DOT Victoria about what weights would be achieved but based on the configuration and a review of the network I was reasonably confident that it would be a good outcome.
We completed the PBS Assessment and Certification relatively quickly but had to wait around 6 months for the bridge assessment to be finalised.
Luckily, in the end it was a great outcome, and the productivity increase has been significant, going from a 43- tonne HML B-double payload to a 55-tonne payload.
Meanwhile Ken was planning on purchasing two new A-double combinations.
It wasn’t a straightforward decision because there was a potential for more weight with a tri-dolly and longer combination, but in the end the flexibility of operating a 30m combination on the 2B network was seen as the best way forward.
In hindsight it was a great decision. The new A-doubles carry an additional three tonnes payload because the axle spacings meet the Victorian Reference Vehicle requirements and the purpose-built A-double without slider has reduced tare weight with a tandem axle dolly optimised for operation on the PBS Level 2B network in Victoria and now NSW.
The recent addition of the NSW network means Ken can operate an A-double to, and from, key ports in NSW, particularly Port Kembla, a significant grain and fertilizer export hub.
Ken is now operating the two new combinations and would like to continue to use the existing combination but is concerned about more bridge assessment costs and time which means that it’s not a simple matter for a sub-contractor to hook-up and go.
Unfortunately, the bridge assessment process is very inflexible and despite the trailers being identical, a new prime mover means that the process must be started again, for another $10,000 and six months wait.
It’s been relatively good times for primary producers and road freight in recent years given the global supply chain constraints and stimulus provided.
But with interest rates rising and macroeconomic uncertainty ahead, there is always a risk that high commodity prices can drop like a stone. It’s important that we continue to improve road freight productivity to ensure that Australia maintains competitiveness in an increasingly volatile world.