King of the Mountain

Tumut Freight Services is a local family-owned business which has been providing transport services for more than 30 years and is now run by Michael and Tracey Lucas.

The picturesque Tumut Region is located in the foothills of the Snowy Mountains, and includes the towns of Adelong, Batlow, Talbingo, Tumut and Cabramurra.

Tumut is approximately halfway between Sydney and Melbourne and is just 35km from the Hume Highway at South Gundagai, and is conveniently central to Sydney and Melbourne, as well as Canberra and Wagga Wagga.

In usual circumstances the mountainous landscape around Tumut can be a challenging environment in which to operate a trucking business and when travelling across the top of the mountain range during winter snow can be often encountered on narrow roads along with temperatures as low as minus nine degrees Celsius. General freight travelling into the region represents the majority of Tumut Freight Services’ (TFS) activities, complemented with carrying bulk timber on the outbound trips.

For general freight there are number of regular runs including a single trailer service to Sydney every day, a B-double every day out of Melbourne, a single trailer three times a week out of Canberra, and a rigid every day out of Wagga Wagga. TFS has a contract with a major steel supplier carrying steel products from Sydney and Port Kembla covering southeast NSW through to the Riverina area. The local timber industry was hit hard by the 2020 bushfires and by mid-2021 the mills were moving away from recovering burnt timber as most of the usable supply had been exhausted.

This was a factor in the local mill in Tumut reverting to just one shift per day, approximately halving output and resulting in around 70 job losses. In a move to remain viable the Tumut mill is taking on an additional role as a distribution centre for Associated Kiln Driers (AKD) and its mill in Colac will perform a similar function for its Victorian customers.

Michael Lucas, Tumut Freight Service.

A core value of the TFS business is to be reactive and nimble and Michael is able to adapt to changes to suit clients and other transport contractors. Today, TFS operates a diverse fleet with nine prime movers, seven tautliner trailers including two B-double sets, plus five flat top trailers all with container pins to maximise their flexibility.

A new flat top trailer spends a lot of its time carrying steel and has a lift axle due to occasionally travelling unloaded. “All of the prime movers are generally quite new as we try to turn them over every five years,” says TFS’s Michael Lucas.

“Having new equipment on the road is great for the reliability our customers have come to expect from us. They’ll forgive you for the odd breakdown here and there but if you’re constantly ringing up saying you can’t get there because of a breakdown they start looking around because you can’t provide the service they need.” The first prime mover purchased by the company was a 2007 Sterling which has since been retired to yard duties. “The Sterling would do a lot of odd jobs with different trailers,” says Michael.

“A flat top one day, the 48-footer the next. It’s done about 1.3 million ‘Ks’ and we put a clutch and gearbox in it last year. It’s now retired back here at the depot as a tug, but it’s still in good enough condition that if we did have a breakdown or an extra load comes up we can jump in and it can do the job.”

Michael is the third generation in the business started by his father’s father more than 30 years ago. TFS currently has 15 employees supported by a couple of sub-contractors.

“It started with Pop back in the ‘70s with his six tonne tipper carting peas and corn up to the Mountain Maid cannery at Batlow,” he says. “Back then there was also lot of produce from the Tumut Plains such as millet and tobacco.”

Michael’s father left the Police Force to take on the business when his own father retired. Growing customer requirements led to regular trips to Melbourne.

Towards the end of 2000 Michael started doing casual driving in between studying graphic design at Charles Sturt University.

Following the Sydney Olympics, where he trained horses for the Modern Pentathlon equestrian events, Michael joined the family company full time. “I’d been with Dad a lot in the truck as a kid, so a lot of the customers already knew me. We’d do a delivery and they’d ask if we could do something additional,” he recalls.

“I started developing the same relationships with customers. The bulk of business has always been general freight back into Tumut and most of the growth has been organic.”

Freightliner Cascadia.

The mammoth Snowy Hydro 2.0 project presents some opportunities for TFS even though the project is based on the opposite side of the range at Cooma where the large concrete batching plant and factory to manufacture tunnel segments is located.

At times a TFS truck is there once a week. Road access to the construction sites such as Lob’s Hole is via a single direction road on which everyone travels in at a certain time and the direction is reversed later in the day to allow vehicles to leave.

This situation calls for meticulous schedule planning and consideration of a situation where a truck and its driver are possibly delayed because of the necessary access arrangements. The majority of TFS’s prime movers are Kenworth, with a DAF based in Sydney.

The latest fleet addition however is a Freightliner Cascadia, which has come about largely due to the relationship with Dave Warren who is now the Dealer Principal at Daimler Trucks in Wagga Wagga and Albury.

“We’ve always enjoyed a good relationship with Dave and he sold us six Kenworths plus the DAF during his time at the PACCAR dealership,” says Michael.

“He knows our business fairly well, knows what we do and where we go. When a demo Cascadia became available Dave sent it up to us, initially for a couple of weeks. We were very busy at the time and ended up having it for a month.”

Michael himself took the Cascadia on a single trailer steel run down the coast and then up to Bombala, and then back across the mountains to Tumut.

“I gave it a fair old hiding to see what it was like and with the 13-litre engine it handled the coast road very well,” he recalls. “The South Coast has a lot of little, short dips and turns where there is no run up to next hill. The Cascadia wanted to hang on and pull really hard.”

Carrying a 25.5 tonne load, Michael was impressed with how well it handled. While performance capability is one thing in the mountains fuel efficiency is important as well.

“After the month long trial we did the download through the Detroit Connect telematics which showed an average 2.4 km/l and our own records showed 2.44, which is around 0.15 to 0.2 km better than the other trucks we had been running on that task,” says Michael.

“That’s a fair bit of fuel saving over a year or five years.” Equipped with the DT12 automated transmission the Cascadia’s overall top gear ratio of 3.65:1 means the engine is only doing 1420 rpm at 100 kph.

The Cascadia’s short bonnet, good manoeuvrability and low tare weight remind Michael of his trusty old Sterling and he is enthusiastic about his first Freightliner and its Detroit Diesel engine.

“Obviously they’ve been a success in the US for a number of years, so you feel some confidence that it’s not a totally brand new concept,” he says. “I love the Kenworth brand but up here we needed a truck with the versatility of the Cascadia.”

Michael is also impressed with the warranty and servicing arrangements which he has with the Cascadia, just as he is with the Detroit Assurance 5.0 safety features which include Lane Departure Warning, Active Brake Assist, and Adaptive Cruise Control.

Tumut Freight Services is successful due to its combination of country charm and service.

These are seamlessly combined with big city experience and efficiencies.

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