Flinders Highway Star

9 MinutesBy NZ Trucking magazineNovember 12, 2017

The run from Townsville along the lengthy straight Flinders Highway is demanding enough in terms of sheer distance, much less the hostility of Mother Nature in the vast outback. Traversing west to mining communities dotted around western Queensland, it‘s a constant challenge to ensure vital supplies like fuel arrive on time.

The Western Star thunders across the famous Burdekin Bridge.

Mining throughout Western Queensland is big business where profits are measured in cents per grams, and when the machinery that mines the minerals stop… for even a moment… it can cost tens of thousand of dollars.

Needless to say the demand on trucking companies like Hawkins Road Transport to deliver goods to these remote mines is high – much higher than you‘d expect. For instance, at some of these mines that operate large fleets of dump trucks, loaders and diggers, a road train-load of diesel can be consumed in a just a few days.

A little before seven on an Autumn Tuesday morning the North Queensland sun was already scorching. I spotted the lead trailer and dolly parked in the middle of the yard, but there was no sign of driver ‘Pinky‘ or his 4900 Western Star.

An hour or so later a bright flash of the sun reflecting from the polished grille in the distance signalled Rodger ‘Pinky‘ Pink‘s impending arrival.

Rodger Pink is more than happy with the Western Star and DD15 combo.

Pinky wasted little time as he guided the 4900 Western Star through the maze of parked trailers and pulled his dog trailer combination in behind the lead trailer and unhooked it, before heading around to the front of the lead trailer to couple the road train together.

Arriving at the assembly point. The leading semi and dolly wait patiently.

Ready to rock.

He climbed out of the cabin and apologised for being late, and after walking around the combination for one final check and the customary turning of the road train signs, he paused, pulled his phone from his top pocket and took a quick photo.

“It‘s a good looking rig,” he said.

It was time to hit the road. Pinky filled out his logbook, depressed the clutch, and slipped the gear stick into the low slot.

The 14.8-litre DD15 under the hood bit hard as the clutch was eased out, and the 4900 Western Star eased the trailers forwards.

The climb up the Mingela Range certainly put the DD15‘s turbo compound system to the test. At the base of the climb Pinky slipped the 4900 Western Star out of overdrive then let the Detroit lug right down through the torque range to 1000rpm before changing down another gear. Pinky reckoned the theory of torque is widely misunderstood and numerous drivers will miss the key element in the DD15‘s low power profile. He lugged the engine down below 1,000 rpm on a few occasions and the pull was still there.

“Unfortunately, many drivers will be tempted to downshift early, long before the engine has utilised its low end torque down to 1,000rpm,” Pinky said.

Not far past the Mingela Range, Pinky pulled into a parking bay to check over the new truck and tap his tyres. The heat from the bitumen radiated up through the work boots; it was like walking on a hot plate. Thankfully everything was okay, and he quickly climbed back into the air-conditioned cabin and got the rig rolling again.

Up here at the top of the Australian continent where the average temperature is around 40-plus degrees, and with a gross combination mass around 120 tonne, being able to maintain an average of 90 kph all day is testament enough that Western Star have really got the cooling right with this big beast of burden.

Pinky explained these tri-axle dollies have a few advantages over the more traditional bogie dollies; understandably they allow additional weight to be carried and secondly they keep the rear trailers a lot straighter because they don‘t react to every bump in the road.

West of Hughenden the sparse golden plains give way to fields of small trees about six metres high, with bright yellow flowers that stretch as far as the eye can see.

The tri-axle dollies ride the bumps well and are less prone to stepping out of line.

Pinky explained that these trees, called prickly acacia, are in fact a noxious weed and classified as a restrictive invasive plant in the Biosecurity Act of 2014. Since the introduction of the prickly acacia decades ago, it now infests more than seven million hectares of Queensland, while smaller infestations are reported in the Northern Territory, South Australia and New South Wales. His advice was not to venture too far off the road because the prickly acacia‘s spikes (7cm long) will easily puncture a tyre.

While the miles rolled by Pinky told us that Hawkins Road Transport was established in 1921 by Bartholomew and Rosina Hawkins and was the first transport company in Queensland to run in opposition to the railways in Brisbane.

At the time, the Hawkins operated a small service station in Ipswich, and their transport business grew when they began carrying Mobil drums of fuel from the Brisbane fuel depot to their service station far more reliably than the railways did.

Today, Hawkins operates fuel tankers throughout Queensland, transporting bulk liquids in vehicles from rigid body trucks to triple road trains like this 4900 Western Star. The popularity of Western Star trucks up in the remote country is clearly evident with the number of other operators who are using them too.

The big Stratosphere sleeper bunk is also another feature Pinky reckons Western Star have done well.

“There‘s plenty of room to stretch out when you sleep, and storage for all the gear you need to carry,” he explained.

The ride inside the 4900 Western Star was exceptional. Pinky said the handling of this truck is the best he‘s had. Observing his steady hand on the wheel from the ‘rider‘s‘ seat and the seemingly effortless ease with which he guided the Constellation along the rugged track, its road manners were certainly impressive.

Sadly light rain and a detour cut short our time with Pinky and his impressive combination. Our thoughts were of a solid truck built to last in the most demanding of conditions, with a state-of-the-art engine to propel it that was equally up to the task.

Bridging the supply void between communities and those who supply them with life‘s essentials.