Confidence in coal

In April 2024, Top Truck5 MinutesBy Craig McCauleyMay 16, 2024

Coal may no longer be considered a primary source of energy for New Zealand industry in the eyes of some. But a long-standing West Coast family business defies this opinion with constant investment in mine infrastructure and new plant.

Coal extraction on the West Coast commenced near Brunner in 1864, and the industry has operated continuously since then.

Birchfield Coal Mines (BCM) is a fully integrated energy supply business that mines, blends and supplies coal to customers throughout the South Island under the directorship of siblings Evan, Karen and Gary Birchfield.

The Birchfield name requires no introduction when it comes to moving earth on the West Coast. Max, Evan and Karen’s late father, was an earthmoving contractor who diversified into coal mining during the late 1970s.

Birchfield’s original mine was located in hills above Dunollie and coal was transported from the pit to a nearby railhead initially by International S-Lines. A pair of Pacific P600s superseded the S-Lines, fitted with high-capacity coal bodies, these trucks proved to be a great choice for an uphill-empty, downhill-loaded run.

In 1984, Birchfield began a new mine development in the Mai Mai Valley, south of Reefton. Named Giles Creek, this mine is still in operation and is responsible for a sizable amount of Birchfield’s current coal output.

International resumed being the truck of choice for the company and many who were around the industry in this era will recall Birchfield’s then flagship, a 444 Cummins-powered International T2700.

International trucks, and latterly, Iveco, have populated the West Coast in significant numbers for decades.

Much of the brand’s success on the ‘Coast’ can be attributed to the backup supplied initially by Southern International and latterly NZ Trucks in Christchurch.

Mark Wisdom, sales and transport manager for Birchfield Coal Mines, says: “BCM have a very long-standing relationship with Southern International and now NZ Trucks. Their sales and service are second to none.”

From the turn of the millennium, the truck fleet consisted of several Iveco PowerStars configured as 6×4 tippers, towing four-axle trailers.

BCM purchased several assets of the former government-owned coal mining company, Solid Energy New Zealand, following its demise in 2017.

Loading at the Birchfield Rocky Creek plant.

One of these operations was Strongman Mine, located high on a plateau in the Nine Mile Valley, north of Greymouth.

Accessing Strongman involves the traverse of a steep access road with several hairpin bends, and previous operators have encountered their share of mechanical misadventures while carting off Strongman.

A duo of Iveco 6×4 Trakkers fitted with Eurotronic automated transmissions, integrated retarders, hub-reduction rear axles, and central tyre inflection systems, were put to work following the Strongman acquisition, and have proved the right fit for the job.

With the Solid Energy asset acquisition, coal production increased across the board, and more transport resource was required.

Birchfield’s directors decided to persue the extra payload available under HPMV regulations, and in 2023, an identical pair of IVECO X-Way nine-axle units went to work.

They are spec-ed with the Iveco Cursor 13 engine producing 419kW (570hp) at 1900rpm and the Iveco Hi-Tronix 12TX2420 TD 12-speed automated transmission.

A Meritor MT23-150/D single reduction rear bogie mounted on Iveco’s ECAS Eight-Bag rear suspension puts the power to the road.

Gary Graham, driver of the X-Way.

“Lusk Engineering of Ashburton were chosen to build the truck bins and trailers due to the quality of their workmanship,” explains Gary.

Gary remarked how quiet the trucks are when travelling along the road. There is not the usual amount of noise associated with empty aluminium bins, an important factor when the trucks are travelling through small communities while going about their days work.

Gary Graham is the driver of No.10; the workload is varied, involving product transfers from Birchfield-owned mines to distribution centres located at Kaiata (north of Greymouth) and at Reefton.

The finished product is also delivered by the X-Way, predominately to West Coast customers. Demand has seen Birchfield’s truck fleet more than double during the last half-decade, rejecting the assumption that coal is an energy source of the past.

The future burns bright for Birchfield Coal Mines.