Trucking in Australia: Searching for the Myth

There are many adventure stories about roadtrains and “truckies”. Author Reiner Rosenfeld wanted to know what everyday life is like for Australian drivers.

Australia’s outback: It consists of endless steppes, deserts and dry riverbeds. It begins where civilization ends and only occasional farm fences border barren pastureland. Three quarters of the huge Australian continent belong to it, and yet only fifteen percent of the population lives here. 7,000 kilometers of road lie ahead of me, across the outback, on my search for the myth of the Roadtrain, the legendary Australian trucks weighing up to two hundred tons and sixty meters long, and their drivers.

Just like Australian truck drivers, I will cover most of the kilometers on highways and dirt roads. My route will take me in a rental car from Perth in the southwest to Darwin in the far north.

I have read a lot about the famous roadtrains, the “Kings of Down Under”, and watched videos on the Internet to get an impression of the special features of the Australian driving profession. Now I would like to see with my own eyes what is true about the glorified stories about roadtrain heroes and their vehicles – what is truth and what is myth. Maybe Australia could be a corner of the world where it is worthwhile at some point as a retiree to spend a few weeks a year as a substitute driver to supplement the household budget? The first thing you notice when driving in Australia is the extremely low traffic density. On the first day of driving, I only see signs that open roads for roadtrains of certain weights and lengths, but not a single one of the giants. Only a lonely 480 MAN with a refrigerated trailer stands at the roadside. Not a spectacular sight and with only one trailer anything but a roadtrain.

BULLBARS REDUCE MAJOR DAMAGE WHEN HIT BY A KANGAROO
But it shows me what dangers lurk in the outback. The Bavarian truck wears the typical outfit of Australian trucks – a massive cowcatcher in front of the radiator and an oversized stone guard protecting the windshield. Both look martial and like an adventure. But at the same time, I find the idea of being able to perceive the world from the driver’s seat only through the rockfall grille, similar to a prison cell, oppressive. For me, this is the first minus point in terms of “great Australian long-distance driving freedom”.

The next thing that comes into view when driving through Australia’s west are the many animal carcasses on the roadside. This also explains the purpose of the huge bull bars in front of the trucks. These trucks can also be rented. Truck hire sydney, for example, has a good selection. It is surprising that they are not called kangaroo bars in Down Under. After all, mostly man-sized kangaroos and their smaller conspecifics, the wallabies, lie dead at the roadside. A study by NTARC, the National Center for Truck Accident Research, shows that the huge protection in front of the radiator is virtually a must for Australian trucks. According to the study, collisions with animals are the second most common cause of accidents involving trucks.

The high number of dead animals could also have something to do with the fact that extra-heavy road trains take an endless amount of time to reach their cruising speed of one hundred kilometers per hour. It is rumored that some Australian roadtrain drivers prefer to deal Skippy a death blow with the bullbar instead of letting off the gas or stepping on the brakes.

On a stretch where it is particularly bad with the carcasses at the roadside, I count about one animal corpse in different states of decomposition per ten kilometers of road. Because of the corresponding odor, the window stays closed from then on. With the positive effect that the swarms of flies native to the Australian outback no longer populate the vehicle as soon as it stops.

The air conditioning system has to go into action for this, as temperatures in the northern Outback regularly crack the 35-degree mark in the Australian summer. Getting out of the vehicle and working under such conditions is a pleasure for only very few drivers.

SWARMS OF FLIES AND HEAT:
PART OF THE JOB FOR THE DRIVERS

I’m deducting three points from the scale of Australian roadtrain romance for the many animal accidents, the annoying swarms of flies and the tropical heat during outback trips. You can put up with that on vacation, but in the long run it would get on my nerves as a driver. Then I meet Dean Reed. The 55-year-old family man has been successfully involved in the Australian transport business for decades with his own tractor unit. But at some point, the freight rates no longer paid off for the lone fighter. Now he works as a driver for a large company. He uses a Kenworth to haul two trailers of bitumen through Western Australia, covering at least a thousand kilometers a day with his 80-ton truck.

After taxes, he earns between 6500 and 9000 Australian dollars a month – the equivalent of 4500 to 6000 euros. Sounds like an obscene amount of money for European drivers and is also attractive by Australian standards, but is greatly diminished by the high cost of living. For orientation: in OZ, as talkative Aussies call their country, a cheap beer costs two euros, a pound of bread three euros, and thirty grams of tobacco fifteen euros.

“But in Australia, truckies have to work hard for their money,” says Dean Reed, giving me a crash course in driving and rest times in the country below the equator. According to these, Australian drivers are allowed to sit behind the wheel for twelve days during two weeks, including 168 hours of working time. They are also allowed to drive for five hours at a stretch. After that, a ten-minute break is enough to tackle the next five-hour block. Nine hours off per day should be the norm, but breaks may be reduced to seven hours. To make matters worse, truckies, as truck drivers are known here, handwrite their driving and rest times. Every experienced chauffeur knows what that means in the worst case. It’s not for nothing that daily check sheets, which drivers in the 2.8- to 3.5-ton league fill out every day, are disparagingly dubbed lie sheets in Germany.

That the long working hours do not leave no trace on Australian drivers becomes clear to me at the latest when I observe a Roadtrain driver in a parking lot hitching up a semitrailer. The man can hardly walk due to fatigue, his face is sunken and his eyes are deep in their sockets. “Only three hundred kilometers to go before unloading,” he mumbles, “then I’ll call it a day.” Shortly thereafter, he turns onto the highway with his Kenworth, four trailers and an estimated sixty meters in length and picks up speed heading north.

Conclusion: Australian road train drivers have to work hard for their excellent wages. If you like to reel off kilometers, are fit and willing to perform, you can earn good money. However, the situation reminds me of times when people in Germany and Europe were still driving like hell. Personally, I don’t long for those times back. That’s why I’m deducting another point for the great Australian road train myth.

1500 KILOMETERS PER DAY ARE FEASIBLE

Tony Hill and Sherri-Lee I’ Anson explain to me what incredible distances roadtrain drivers cover every day. I meet them at Minilya Bridge Roadhouse, two hours’ drive above Carnarvon Shire. The likeable couple loves to drive the so-called Western Loop with their own Western Star Truck. This is a round trip starting from Perth on the Northwest Coastal Highway north to Port Headland and via the Great Northern Highway through the interior via Newman back to Perth. “The 3500 kilometers can be done in three days if things go optimally,” Tony reports. This is possible because most of the roads run absolutely straight and with almost no elevation changes through the outback. So the Roadtrain maximum speed of 100 km/h becomes the average speed. Falling asleep and being distracted are among the most frequent causes of fatal accidents. From a European perspective, however, the monotony of Western Australian overland roads is almost unbearable; the 850 kilometers between Port Headland and Broome are particularly notorious.

The view extends to the horizon, the half-height vegetation next to the road is uniform, cars are hardly on the road, curves are almost non-existent, and roadhouses and parking lots are often hundreds of kilometers apart. Nowhere else in the world have I experienced routes as soporific as in western Australia. In addition, there are not even radio programs outside of cities to keep you entertained – highway hypnosis is preprogrammed. No wonder that the NSW Centre for Roadsafety counts falling asleep as one of the most frequent causes of accidents when heavy trucks crash. For me, that adds another minus point to my potential retirement job as a roadtrain driver. Large Australian transport companies are therefore increasingly equipping drivers’ workplaces with additional safety equipment. Just how far this can be taken is shown to me by a driver who is transporting ammonium nitrate in his 170-ton, 53-meter-long Roadtrain. The highly flammable hazardous substance is used in mines to manufacture explosives.

A CAMERA EYE WATCHES THE DRIVER AT WORK

Looking into his cab, he directs my attention to a small box on the dashboard. It’s an infrared camera that measures the blink of an eye and warns of any signs of fatigue. In addition, a camera eye hangs above the passenger seat, filming him as he steers the Roadtrain. This ensures that he is fully focused on his job. Furthermore, G-sensors measure acceleration values while driving. If these exceed a critical value during braking or evasive maneuvers, the figures are transmitted electronically to the company. Later, the driver can be questioned about this. The whole system is supplemented by a dashcam that records scenes in front of the vehicle. Last but not least, he is only allowed to drive at eighty kilometers per hour instead of the otherwise permitted hundred.

“Does that still have anything to do with the great freedom of truck driving?”, I then want to know from him. His answer, “For me, the lack of freedom is compensated for by the plus in safety!” comes promptly and yet seems rehearsed. Perhaps this is due to the many training sessions that the drivers have to complete at his employer’s. That’s eight days a year in which he is instructed in company policy, eco-driving, safety and changes in the law.

Quite clearly, my opinion is also: Safety first” applies in road traffic. And yet something of the Roadtrain myth is bursting again. Because I can have permanent monitoring in Europe, too – through the digital speedometer or the collection of eco-driving and location data. Freedom, adventure and independent work look different.

It’s fitting that Tony Hill and Sherri-Lee I’ Anson, the couple with the Western Star truck, see their freedoms as drivers and entrepreneurs threatened by the regulatory frenzy of Australian authorities. “It’s especially bad in the more densely populated east. There, more and more regulations, police checks and drastic penalties make life difficult,” the two are convinced. They prefer to travel in the lonely and almost uncontrolled expanses of Western Australia and the Northern Territory. They also have an example of horrendous penalties at the ready. For example, overlength on the Roadtrain is punished with 200 dollars (140 euros) per centimeter.

THE REGULATORY FRENZY OF THE AUTHORITIES MAKES LIFE DIFFICULT FOR DRIVERS

The fact that I finally became genuinely enthusiastic about roadtrain driving was due to two further encounters with drivers. One, Leon Gurney, I meet on the Victoria Highway, two days before the end of my trip. While driving through the small town of Timber Creek, I see him unloading a trailer of his Kenworth with the forklift in the parking lot of a gas station. Next to him is the driver of a Toyota pickup truck taking on merchandise. I have been waiting for this for a long time. Finally, I meet a driver who does more than drive his huge truck straight, drink coffee at a roadhouse, or hook up or unhook trailers. Leon transports, as I learn from him, mostly general cargo. To do this, he takes over three trailers in Darwin and unloads his goods within a radius of eight hundred kilometers. Either customers pick them up from him at a parking lot or he brings the goods directly to them. The job is varied because Leon takes both highways and dirt roads under his wheels and can work independently. It’s exactly this mix of customer contact, independence and the adventure of being on the road with a heavy truck that I love about being a driver. I would particularly enjoy that with a Roadtrain on Australian highways and tracks in the outback. It would also be an adventure. And then there’s meeting Taranaki Robinson from New Zealand. Because there’s good money to be made in Australia from truck driving, he moved there and bought a truck. Now he travels through the northwest as a subcontractor trailer. And he describes to me this moment, so intense for him, when he first drove a roadtrain five years ago, with three trailers, weighing 120 tons and over fifty meters long. “At that time, I felt like a little kid – scared, proud and happy at the same time!” says Taranaki with a pensive smile.

And at that moment, it strikes me that all the Roadtrain drivers I had the pleasure of meeting during my reportage had something in common … they all had a satisfied and self-confident smile on their face!

Roadtrain riding is not something you can or should analyze with your head, as I tried to do for three weeks. The true myth of roadtrain driving can probably only be experienced behind the wheel. Maybe one day I’ll be able to do that too – as a substitute driver at retirement age.