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Rugged Roads

Heading up the Lynd in northern Australia has for a longtime been a treacherous ordeal along a narrow pot holed road. One truck that’s stood the test of time on this run is NHS’ 6900 Western Star, we sent Howard Shanks investigate.

It was a little before five in the morning when Allister Roberts opened the door to his 6900 Western Star and climbed in with an armful of drinks and food. Then he turned the key and the big 16-litre Cummins engine under the hood fired into life as does every day. Alistair finished stowing his food in the center mounted Engel fridge before climbing back out of the cabin to begin his customary walk around the triple roadtrain to check the tyres and lights.

This morning, thankfully, everything was okay and it wasn’t long before Allister had the 6900 rolling out the dusty yard on the western outskirts of the old mining town of Charters Towers, in North West Queensland.

Today like every other day with the exception of the few major holidays like Christmas Day, New Year’s Day and Easter this 6900 Western Star heads north on the 420 kilometer trek to the rich copper mine at Mt Garnet to collect approximately 70 tonne of copper concentrate bound the Townsville wharf.

Mining in North Queensland is big business and has been since the first explorers stumbled over gold and other rich ore deposits back around 1870. Even today they’re still finding new deposits.

Alistair’s been on this run for almost three years now and admits that even though its hard going the consistency of a regular job has made operating his business a lot easier.

“When I first bought this 6900 five years ago my wife Tammy and I drove it all over northern Australia hauling general freight,” Allister explained. “It was a great life but the money wasn’t all that regular. If you look at our logo, we basically went anywhere north of the 26th Parallel, hence our business name Northern Haulage Services.”

“Today our business is more focused,” Allister admitted. “This truck does 1200 kilometers per day and we have three drivers including myself who each do a 12 hour shift on a rotational basis.”

“Each Tuesday during day shift we take the entire roadtrain off the road for routine maintenance and inspection,” Allister continued. “In a high utilization operation like ours it’s the only way to keep on top of everything and remain reliable.”

Testament to Allister’s strict maintenance procedures is that according to the mine’s key-performance indicators his 6900 Western Star is the most reliable unit on the run.  Considering that the truck has already clocked up over 1.5 million kilometers it’s an extremely commendable achievement given the conditions of the roads in these parts.  
The road north out of Charters Towers is commonly referred to as the Gregory Development Road (Route 63), however depending on which map you look at it is sometimes referred to as the Lynd Highway or the “Sir John McEwan Beef Road”, nevertheless it has for a long time been a notorious route both cars and trucks.

Even today there are still stretches of narrow pot holed single lane bitumen hardly wide enough for a car yet alone a roadtrain. It is also one of only a few roads where it is compulsory for drivers to call their positions at dedicated call points along the way to warn oncoming vehicles of their approach.

“Not so long back when they were carting rock back down south there were 54 roadtrains leaving the Surveyor Mine each day,” Allister recalled. “Nowadays we’re back to 18 roadtrains in a 24 hour period, (nine trucks based out of Mt Garnet and nine out of Charters Towers),  in our operation, then there are all the cattle carters and general haulers that use this road too so it’s a busy corridor.”

“I never thought I’d see this road converted to dual lanes in my time,” Allister admits. “But they’re saying by June next we’ll have dual lanes all the way to Mt Garnet.”

Allister cites the build quality of the Western Star’s 6900 as a pivotal part in the longevity and reliability he has enjoyed from this truck. He also adds that the heavy duty spec of the big 6900 is the other key this success.

“Sure things go wrong from time to time,” Allister says. “Just last week the primer pump on the Cummins failed, but luckily there was a spare here at the mine which I was able to fit and was back on the road within half an hour.”

From a specification point, Allister’s 6900 is powered by a 620 horsepower Cummins coupled through an Eaton Fuller 15½” Easy Pedal VCT dampened ceramic two plate clutch, to a Roadranger 18 speed manual with oil pump & Hayden Cooler.

The rear end is made up of a pair of Meritor RT-52-185G axles mounted on Neway AD252 air-suspension with a 52,000lb capacity.

These heavy duty 6900 Western Stars are built tough for these harsh conditions and come standard with two CR Turbo 2000 air dryers with heaters and a Cummins 37.4 CFM twin cylinder compressor.

Dual 330mm (13”) external stainless steel Donaldson air cleaners with water resistant elements, and 152mm (6”) diameter raised ducting, and intakes feed the Cummins plenty of air. Meantime a 1570 square inch, heavy-duty copper/brass radiator core keeps it cool even on the hottest days.  

For the really long hauls Allister specified the 68 inch Stratosphere ‘walk-through’ sleeper which has plenty of room to stretch out and ample cupboard space for storage.

The three side tipping trailers with their hard top lids are built by Haulmark in Brisbane and Allister says they’re the only type of trailers that will stand up to the harsh conditions in the north of the country.

“These trailers are ten years old and still doing a magnificent job,” Allister explained. “However the dollies on the other hand are cheap Chinese copies and give no end of problems, and they’re less than twelve months old. But I didn’t have any say in the acquisition of the dollies otherwise they’d have been Haulmark ones.”

“Look I’d buy another one of these Western Star 6900’s any day after the great run I’ve had from this one,” Allister concluded. It hasn’t missed many days work in five years and that’s pretty good considering it’s always pulling three trailers.

Story and Photography by Howard Shanks

April 17, 2014 | Posted in: Articles



Australian Trucking Quarterly