Road-Trains Rule the
Roads in Australia's Outback
Three-Trailer or More
Combinations Service Cities That Are Thousands of Miles Apart
When it is time to water the cattle in Australia's Outback, the
livestock is driven to watering holes. But these cattle drives do not include cowboys on horses herding the livestock
along as is done in the United States. These cattle drives use
"road-trains" -- a truck with three or more trailers hooked together
-- to get the livestock to water.
The Outback is hot and dry and encompasses thousands of square miles in the
center of Australia. Most of it is called "crown land" -- which means
it is still undeveloped and belongs to the government. But although the Outback
is not considered good farmland, it is used to raise cattle.
The area's cattle stations, as the ranches are called, are hundreds to thousands
miles of hot, dry land that have very little surface water. Most of the cattle
drink at man-made water holes that use windmills to pump the water up from
But cattle are not the only things trucked around the Outback by road-trains.
All road freight is moved by road-trains.
Australia is a flat country about the size of the United States, but most of its
people live within 10 miles of the sea in a handful of cities. It has no
north-south railway, and it does not have a coast-to-coast highway system. The
numbers of cars in the country are few and the roads are narrow -- usually one
lane in each direction. When two trucks pass each other, there are only feet
between them. So with thousands of miles of road between cities and no hills to
cross, road-trains make good sense.
The normal road-train is made up of three 44-foot trailers. There is a twin axle
turntable dolly under the front of the trailer that hooks up to the back of the
trailer in front of it with a ring feeder and a dolly bar. The typical load of a
three-trailer road-train is 120 tons. Road-trains that haul for mining
operations are usually composed of six trailers or more.
A road-train's truckie, as truckers are called down under, has to be at least 18
years old and the graduate
of a college-level TAFE course. The
course teaches everything from how to tie ropes to how much air to put into a
tires. After completing the course, the truckie then has to take a heavy-truck
It is one thing to get a license, but another to get a job driving a road-train.
The new truckie must get another permit from a company that will give him or her
a job. But there is a "Catch 22": Unless the truckie has experience or
knows someone who will give him or her a job, it is very hard to find work
driving a road-train. The best way get a road-train driving job is to drive smaller trucks for a
number of years, and then start driving bigger ones.
Most of Australia's road-trains pri-movers, as the tractors are called, are
Macks and Kenworths that have been made to road-trains specifications. They run
450 or 500 horsepower engines and have, at minimum, a 13-speed gear box.
Chassis are stronger, with more cross members. Also,
the trucks have air tanks for tire inflation and extra fuel tanks to be able to
deal the 1,000-mile or longer trips over routes with roadhouses, as the truck
stops are called, that are 200 miles apart and often in the middle of nowhere.
Australian roadhouses are small
compared to the truck stops in America. The roadhouses only seat 10 or so people
but the food is home-style cooking -- steak, eggs, burgers, chips (French fries
in America) and the like -- not conveyer-belt food like the McDonald's that are
found in the cities.
Because of the distance between service areas, truckies have to be mechanically
inclined and able to make repairs to the broken-down rig. If the truckie cannot
fix the problem, he or she will have to wait for someone to come out hundreds of
miles to get the truck going again. And as is the case with America's
over-the-road drivers, truckies do not get paid for the waiting time. The
breakdown does, however, afford the truckie the opportunity to catch on sleep.
Some Australian vehicle-repair and towing companies have mobile workshops that
go hundred's of miles into the Outback to fix the small jobs. But if a rig blows
a motor or gearbox, there's no alternative but to get towed. In that case, it is
not unusual for the road-train to be towed hundreds of miles to the nearest
town, where the trailers are unhooked before the rig is then towed additional
hundreds of miles to a city in the southern part of Australia to be fixed.
Road-trains were developed just after World War II. The rigs were old U.S. army
trucks and there was no limit to the number of trailers that could be pulled.
In those days, the trailers were only 20 foot long and it was common practice to
join from six to eight of them at a time. With that load, it took half an hour
to get to a top speed of 30 miles an hour. Also back then, there were no brakes to stop the truck. The driver would take
his foot off the accelerator and waited for it to stop on its own.
Today, most of the road-trains have three 44-foot trailers, travel at between 60
and 65 miles an hour and have full air brake systems.
The author drives for Richmond Heavy Towing of Adelaide in the state of South
Rules, Wages Vary
Between Company Drivers, Owner-Operators
regulations governing road-train drivers in Australia's Outback are quite
different from those mandated for trucking in the United States. Truckies, as Australian truck drivers are called, can drive no more than four
hours at a time without stopping for a half-an-hour rest. They also cannot drive
for more than 12 hours in a 24-hour period.
As a result, a lot of trucking companies assign two drivers to each truck,
allowing one to drive while the other rests so the shipment can be moved more
expeditiously. The road-trains usually only stop to allow the drivers to get something to eat
-- normally at a small roadhouse or truck stop. There are only a handful of
roadhouses on a 1,000-mile trip, Most drivers are on the road for up to two
weeks before they have to take a week off. The other type of
driving is the owner-driver, or owner-operator. They drive as many hours as the
can in a 24-hour day.
Wages and benefits for Australia's company drivers are considered good. Most
company drivers earn around $600 a week in Australian currency (about $300 U.S.)
and get four weeks of paid vacation a year. Owner-drivers, on the other hand, are paid by the load and usually cannot afford
to take off four weeks a year, so they just keep driving year-round.
All Australian workers get a government pension at 65, but most truck drivers
stop driving when they have had a gut full of the life style.
Comments from our driver/guide: The Road Trains are up to 55
meters (165 feet) long and carry up to 150 tons per load.
The Road Train trucks are only allowed in the Northern Territory
and Queensland states. In the outback they can haul up to 7
trailers. Each truck has about a 500 gallon diesel tank and
15 gear transmission. They sometimes use ½ trailers
just for fuel. The Road Train can carry 150-180 head of
cattle. Each trailer has 5-6 axles and 20-24 tires.
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