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July 24, 2011

Driving a Roadtrain to Roxby Downs

“If all else fails, go for first gear.”
This was the only advice I received when I asked the regular driver of the Freightliner FLD prime mover of the 240,000-pound roadtrain I was to drive from Port Augusta in South Australia up to the Australia’s largest underground copper mine at Roxby Downs.

With that, I settled in to the driver’s seat – on the right-hand-side – and using my left hand picked up low crawler in the Eaton 18-speed. With a five and a quarter ISX with 1,850 lb-ft, there was plenty to get it rolling. Even so I split each gear up through the low side of the transmission as we eased through Port Augusta to pick up the two-lane Stuart Highway that heads out to Alice Springs in the middle of the huge, mostly barren land that is Australia.

The really cool thing is that the locals in Port Augusta want the roadtrains out of town with the minimum of fuss so the multi-trailer rigs are equipped with the same technology that emergency vehicles have to change traffic lights to green, so as not to impair their progress. Waaay cool!

This was few years ago now. But I am often asked about the more interesting drives I have enjoyed, and this was one of life’s driving experiences, and so deserves re-telling here.

This roadtrain was in the red and yellow livery of the mighty Linfox logistics fleet that handles all the transportation needs for the copper, uranium and silver mine. And mining in the Australian Outback requires a lot of transportation ‒ diesel fuel, sulfuric acid, sulfur and many other commodities for the mining operation, as well as food and supplies for the hundreds of people out there in the desert.

The most cost-effective way to get all that stuff up to the mine is to haul it up in triple trailer trains called roadtrains. And when it comes time to get the copper back to the coast to ship it out, the specially configured trailers – even if they are tanks – can load the ingots over the dollies and tridems to gross the same combination weight as the inbound combinations.

Roadtrains aren’t permitted to roam all over Australia. In fact, in the narrow coastal region that sweeps from Brisbane about half way up the East coast round through Sydney and Melbourne to Adelaide, only semitrailers and B-Trains are permitted. Further in toward the center of the continent, doubles are the favored combo and then at outposts like Port Augusta, three doubles sets are combined into a pair of triple trains. It is quite the operation and as you can imagine the timing of arrivals and departures at the consolidation/break points is critical to the smooth operation of the transportation and, ultimately, the mine.

This is what Linfox is extremely good at. In fact, Australian carriers are among the very best in the world, with an excellent understanding of the metrics that make a profitable, successful operation.

To make sure everything went smoothly for this trip, Linfox Regional Vice President Mike Moharich had flown in to tell me about the company and this mine-haul operation ‒ his particular responsibility.

As is the case with all of Australia, hospitality is the first order of the day, so the evening before the drive was cause for some eating and major consumption of Australia’s best export: beer. I still think Moharich was testing me, but beer consumption is something I do well. While the hospitality was under way, other hardworking souls at the terminal were spotting trailers and hooking up the train ready for my drive the next day.

On the Road
Driving out of town we passed the first sign warning of kangaroos. I had driven in Australia on a previous occasion and was well familiar with the dangers of this particular wildlife. If you are in a car and the beast comes through the car windshield and finishes in the car with you, it is highly likely it will kick you to death in its final throws. (Truly, Australia is a place with more ways to kill you than any other place. I refer you to an excellent book by Bill Bryson, In a Sunburned Country for a very entertaining account of the many others.)

I’m often asked if the trains are difficult to stop and the answer is absolutely not. With a total of 18 axles there are 36 drum brakes and 70 tires to provide the friction. But there’s still only the one engine to get it going, so conservation of momentum is the order of the day.

With all that in mind, I set about picking up speed slowly to cruise at 50 mph. fortunately, on the road up to Alice, there’s not a lot of traffic to get in your way. You see the odd car every now and again. To get a glimpse of any following traffic, a twitch at the wheel sends a wave down the train and a quick view behind the last trailer of the combination.

For the most part, the road is straight as an arrow, but midway into the trip, at what used to be the official nuclear testing station for the United Kingdom at Woomera, there is a right turn off the Stuart Highway to Alice, heading for Roxby Downs and the weird opal mining commune at Andamooka. To negotiate this, I was taking a very broad turn and my riding companion said there was no reason to take all the road as the 45-foot trailers on the tandem dollies track really well. In fact, there’s less offtracking than with a single 53-foot trailer with the tandem set to the rear.

Completing this turn and accelerating up through the gears, I took the usual peak in the mirrors and noticed a trailer progressing along the road behind me. I thought: “Gosh, that truck is close behind us.” Then the trailer made the turn and followed us. It was my third trailer!

Soon, I experienced first hand the wisdom of “If all else fails, go for first.” We were approaching a grade, what the Australians call a jump-up. It’s a relatively short climb, as the road goes up the steep side of an escarpment to the next plateau, gaining height as you head to the interior of the country.

As I approached, I split down early to direct top gear – 8 lo – and then started in on the climb. It was not particularly steep, but the weight made its presence felt for sure as the speed rolled off – fast. An early shift to 7 lo was followed by 6 lo, 5 lo, a range-change shift to 4 lo and finally down to 3 lo. Each shift was completed with just enough time to grab the gear, apply power and then downshift again. Now I understood. If you miss a gear the speed rolls off so fast, the only thing you can do is push the lever forward into first gear position and hold it there with the engine revving against the governor until it drops in.

If you stall the train on the hill, you’re screwed. You’re not going to get it started again. If you try to pull ahead, you’ll twist the driveshaft out from under the truck. And you’re not going to back it down the hill. The only answer is to take it apart and take the train up one trailer at a time, and then re-build it at the top of the grade. That takes you all day – if you don’t die from thirst and sunstroke. And you’re likely going to be looking for a job, because you’ve screwed the timing for the exchange of trailers all the way down the line.

Fortunately, I didn’t embarrass myself this time or on the other jump-ups and with nothing untoward for the remainder of the trip, I cruised in to park the combination in the designated area for the Olympic Dam Mine terminal staff to unload the sulfuric acid and reload with copper ingots for the return.

I jumped into a Linfox car – also equipped with a bull-bar – for the return to Adelaide and some more Australian hospitality.

A memorable driving day. One to bore the grandkids with one day.


  1. To drive a roadtrain is quite an difficult job, it's not everyones cup of tea. I haven't ever got a chance to drive them but it seems that it would be a great fun to sit on the drivers seat and to drive them.

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  2. I'll be sure to keep these tips in mind, thank you very much for sharing them.
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  3. If you procrastinate on the train on the hill, you're screwed. You will not get it started again. If you try to pull forward, will distort دريفيشافت from under the truck. And you're not going to back it down the hill.

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