Road-Trains Rule the Roads in Australia's Outback
Three-Trailer or More Combinations Service Cities That Are Thousands of Miles Apart

By Kingsley Foreman

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 of square 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 underground wells.

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 road.

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 Australia.

Rules, Wages Vary Between Company Drivers, Owner-Operators

Hours-of-service 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 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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