Everything Has To Do With Scale

In the Northern Territory everything has to do with scale – it represents 18 per cent of Australia’s land area but is home to just one per cent of the country’s population. Diesel News talked with an operator tasked with distributing fuel across the Territory.

Sitting in a modest industrial unit in Katherine in the Northern Territory, and talking to the owner of the operation, John Fraser, it’s easy to think of the operation run by the genial, relaxed man in battered shorts and a shirt, with a dusty baseball cap, as a small concern. However, start talking about the task the company handles, plus the area covered and customers serviced, and you soon realise this is a big operation in a big country, using big trucks.

Sitting in the shade of the long shed which constitutes the company’s workshop, headquarters, office and smoko hut, the scene is dominated by the truck parked down one side. This is one of those big trucks you will only see in remote areas pulling multiple trailers, a long-wheelbase Volvo FH twin-steer, tri-drive truck with a tanker on the back and coupled to three tanker trailers.

This is not your run-of-the-mill truck, and it does not work in a run-of-the-mill operation. This is one of three trucks that covers the entire Northern Territory for IOR Petroleum. The fuel supplier has a number of remote outlets across the Territory to supply the top-weight road trains that work on these roads.

“I was a livestock agent for years,” says John. “I always liked trucks so I bought one, and did it up. Then I bought a working truck and leased some of my yard space to IOR for them to put their tanks in. Then I started hauling some fuel for them.

“I have been working for IOR for 12 years now, starting with one truck and then going to two trailers. As the business grew we also had a livestock trailer for a while. It was on a sub-contracting deal, but then we moved it over to pulling fuel tankers and it’s grown from there.

“We currently run two trucks and have another undergoing restoration. There are two trucks on fuel full time, plus one subcontractor. We have the 700hp Volvo rigid with three trailers, and we have a Kenworth K200 tri-axle prime mover pulling three trailers.

“It has a pusher axle so it gives you full loading on the drive. With the pusher you can get 22.5 tonnes on the drives in the Northern Territory. It’s not as expensive as the tri-drive and we reckon we can get away with a bit less maintenance.”

The tri-drive twin-steer Volvo has a completely Volvo driveline and runs at a GCM of 164 tonnes. The truck is actually rated up to 175 tonnes, but this kind of loading is only achievable if John upgrades the dollies’ suspensions.

Fuel in the Territory

IOR has fuel tanks in Noonamah, 40km south of Darwin; Katherine, a further 300km down the road; Tennant Creek, 1,000km to the south of Darwin; Alice Springs, 1,500km to the south and Kununurra, a mere 800km to the west of the Territory’s capital. All of the fuel comes out of the sole fuel terminal in the Territory, the Vopak Terminal, situated in the recently developed port area.

The work is varied as the demand for fuel goes up and down due to seasonal changes, livestock movements to the docks, etc. Normally, at least three or four loads a week come into the Katherine facility, where a steady stream of trucks comes in to fill up at the refuelling site, situated beside the Stuart Highway to the north of the town.

Frasers also has to keep the Alice Springs facility topped up, but it is not as busy as Katherine.Truck traffic from Queensland, South Australia and Western Australia all has to pass through Katherine, keeping the demand for fuel consistently high there.

Fuel is also delivered out to individual customers, cattle stations, and the like. These smaller and less regular drops can be fitted around the main task at hand, namely ensuring IOR’s diesel bowsers keep flowing. The combination of all of the fuel deliveries keeps all three trucks busy and on the road full time.

“We run virtually everything for IOR in the Northern Territory,” says John. “We decide which tanks need to be topped up. We load the fuel, deliver it and then supply them with the paperwork to tell them where it all went. When you’ve been doing it for twelve years, you know which tanks use what amount of fuel each day, roughly.

“We can plan ahead fairly well, if there’s a big rush on it might catch you out, but you have enough of a buffer to cope with it. You get a feeling for what is going on. We also own the weighbridge in Katherine, so we know what cattle trucks are booked in to weigh, and when a big lift is coming in. Suddenly, a tank which uses 4,000 litres a day can use 10,000 a day for the next week or so.

“We organise the schedules, do some pricing and even maintain their bowsers for them, basically everything for IOR Northern Territory. If a nozzle on a bowser is leaking, we fix it. We have three forms of income from them – they pay us for delivery, for our sites and for us to maintain their equipment.”

Fuel demand at the bowsers can change dramatically from week to week. It also puts a lot of pressure on cattle suppliers, and the other businesses that support them, who are also on a stop/start cycle.

“The livestock trade has changed so much,” says John. “With the introduction of these bigger ships for live-export cattle, it’s either a flood or they are stopped. When I worked in the industry, the ships only held 1,000 head of cattle each, so we loaded one every five days or so.

“Now, the ships hold up to 21,000 head. So, it’s a big rush with every triple road train available on the road for four or five days prior to sailing. Then nothing moves for the next week or so, until the next big ship comes in.”