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Fleets like Shaw’s Darwin Transport, which relies on Cummins and Meritor, are getting the best of both worlds, following the merger of the two companies.
A triple roadtrain is pulled by a Kenworth T909 in the Northern Territory.

Since 1989, when the fleet first opened its depot in Sydney, Shaw’s Darwin Transport has resolved to help its clientele move freight between Darwin, Sydney, Perth and Brisbane.

With a wide range of equipment capable of completing various freight tasks, the well-respected and independently-owned business, specialises in moving fresh produce, non-perishables, medical equipment, pharmaceuticals, mining equipment, heavy machinery and vehicles.

The business is the creation of William Shaw, who in 1989 started operating a Kenworth for a road express service between Sydney and Darwin, mainly as a subcontractor for one of the major national carriers.

Not more than a year later he was already pursuing expansion with purchases of additional prime movers and trailers. By 1986 the business name ‘Shaw’s Darwin’ had been officially registered. Several more expansion phases followed and with it a growing reputation for quality service.

Shaw’s Darwin Transport, as the company is now known as today, uses 50 prime movers, 133 trailers, and 63 dollies in its daily operations.

Excepting one old Detroit engine, the fleet is 100 per cent Cummins powered. Put simply, as Fleet Maintenance Manager, Jim Backhouse says, the Cummins product serves the fleet well.

“The product is strong, and we’ve run it for many, many years,” he says. “We originally started with Detroit engines, however, in later years we saw the way to go was with Cummins. Because we’re pulling two and three trailers at a time, we needed more horsepower. Since then, we’ve never thought about changing or looking back.”

Cummins X15 roadtrain engine.
Cummins X15 power plant.

The ongoing affiliation with Cummins is undergirded by the company’s impressive national presence and close proximity to Shaw’s Darwin Transport headquarters.

That it continues to power the entire fleet will speak volumes to anyone involved in long haul operations with its brutal demands on equipment.

“The runs are on the board because of the way the product serves us,” Jim says. “If we continually had issues such as breakdowns or things breaking and leaking, we would definitely look outside that current supplier.” He adds, “But to be quite honest, we haven’t had a reason to.”

The fleet’s transformation in many ways has come about given how well the Cummins engines had been performing in isolation. Opting for the Cummins product was hence more obvious when it came time to grow the fleet.

In that time Shaw’s Darwin Transport has accumulated a lot of experience with Cummins’ engines — particularly the X15, which Jim is a big fan of.

“It’s a vast improvement over and above the EGR engine,” he says. “It’s been very good. Its life is great, and its fuel economy is quite good in our operations. It had some early teething problems but we’re well over them.”

The engine, no matter what you throw at it, has positioned itself as a top-tier product in the eyes of many owner-operators according to Jim. “People know how hard these vehicles work and how quickly we can put kilometres on them,” he says.

“Our trucks average 8,000 kilometres a week on the Darwin run, and they’re up around 380,000 kilometres a calendar year on the express. In addition, if there are ever any issues, which I’m not saying there are very often, we are able to get them looked at and sorted quite quickly to get back on the road.”

To some, Cummins’ $3.7 billion acquisition of Meritor last year will drastically alter the commercial vehicle landscape.

The alignment of both companies means the process of getting a more complete and seamless solution is possible, for businesses like Shaw’s Darwin Transport, given it solely relies on products from both OEMs.

Shaw’s Darwin Transport has been associated with the Meritor product since 1991. Now, knowing both teams behind each brand, Jim is certain Cummins-Meritor will be a very strong competitor under the one name.

“It has only been a very short period of time, but I’m sure it will be,” he says. “We know the people to talk to and they’re always willing to look outside the square and try to help us, so we’re looking forward to continuing the relationship with both companies, only now together.”

Meritor’s product, not dissimilar to the Cummins equipment, is notable for its reliable performance particularly for its longevity. They are, in Jim’s estimation, complementary.

Meritor 160 Series axle.
Meritor 160 Series axle.

“Both the products have a very good lifespan, and the teams backing the products don’t tend to change,” he says.

“They have suppliers that they have had for the whole history of the company. We’ve seen this throughout our entire dealings with Cummins and Meritor, and that whole time the product hasn’t let us down.”

Backing this claim are Shaw’s Darwin Transport’s demanding operations. The fleet, typically, will move a single trailer over the Blue Mountains along the Great Dividing Range en route to Darwin, hook up one more trailer in Dubbo before heading out even further to Bourke, and then, hooking up a third trailer to make a triple roadtrain that from here will trek another 3,000-odd kilometres back to Darwin.

In some cases these units can weigh upward of 100 tonnes.

“So, as you can see, it’s quite a testing operation through a very remote part of Australia,” Jim says. “But the axles hold up.”

Cummins-Meritor guarantees help in these instances with service availabilities in some of Australia’s most remote areas — areas Shaw’s Darwin Transport vehicles are a frequent presence.

“One of the other things you have, which is an advantage with these two products, is we can go to any other OEM dealership and get repairs,” Jim says. “Whether that be international or local dealerships, they’re all under the same banner which is quite powerful.”

For many years, Shaw’s Darin Transport has chosen Meritor’s MT21-165GP and MT23-168GP axles under the 160 series.

The 160 series tandem axle has been proven in Australia over many years of use and is the most popular axle produced at the Cummins-Meritor facility in Sunshine, Victoria.

Considered an ideal choice for a variety of applications calling for 21- to 23-tonne Gross Axle Weight Ratings (GAWR), these axles feature precision forging of differential side gears and pinions which in turn increases reliability and shock resistance.

In addition, the driver controlled differential lock (DCDL) allows users to select engagement to generate equal drive in each wheel as needed.

“We’ve always found these to be an extremely good axle for our operations,” Jim says. “Our trucks are rated at 130 tonnes and this axle goes that far. About 95 per cent of our operations is bitumen road conditions. Therefore we don’t require a heavier axle. This suits us quite well for the road conditions we encounter.”

Thanks to Meritor’s eye for catching new opportunities, these axles now come in two versions.

In the Linehaul spec, Meritor has essentially taken the oil pump out of the tandem axle to give customers more efficiency and better economy.

Good news for the traditional pump fanatics though, a pump is still available through the Vocational version (Jim’s preferred choice) where it protects the whole axle against internal damage when factoring in wheel spin.

Kenworth T909 triple roadtrain on highway.
A triple roadtrain is pulled by a Kenworth T909 through the outback in Australia.

Put simply, the Linehaul version is more suitable for customers who have a clearly defined linehaul B-double or single trailer freight task, while the Vocational is more durable in heavier applications.

“It’s a very strong axle,” Jim says. “It suits our operation because we only run to 130 tonnes. We have used bigger axles made by the same people, but they haven’t served us as well as the 160 axles. We service them and we look after them, too. We change the oils and we have certain intervals, and all of our front diffs on our 130-tonne rated Kenworths come with an oil cooler fitted as a requirement of Shaw’s.”

He adds, “It just helps the axle cool better. I think this prolongs the life a little bit, but that’s just something Shaw’s do.”

In the long run, Jim says the benefits of going with Cummins and Meritor can be seen in their reliability, and the fact that some of these products have the capability to withstand enormous amounts of miles.

“Our engines are well over a million kilometres before requiring major repairs,” he says.

“Our Meritor axles are the same — they’re well over a couple of million kilometres, which is extremely good for an axle pulling three trailers around the country. The axle, going back a step, has a little bit of an issue with leakage which Meritor have been working on. I believe, at this stage, it’s been rectified.”

The support both brands offer both before and after an agreement is made, Jim says, is also unmatched.

“Both the companies have very strong teams behind them, and the service outlets they have around the country are excellent,” he says.

“We never suffer from poor service. With Cummins and Meritor, we’re extremely lucky to be able to speak to people in the right place and get action quite quickly, and I think in this day and age that’s a must.”

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