Highways from a Bygone Era

One of the biggest impediments to road safety, efficiency and productivity are highways from a bygone era. Diesel News’, Paul Matthei speaks with Carol Single, co-owner of Single Transport Services and life member of the Mackay Road Accident Action Group (RAAG), about what she and many others describe as one of the most archaic and inadequate stretches of highway in Australia.


Peak Downs Highway


If there’s anyone more passionate about addressing the problems created by archaic road infrastructure than Carol Single, I’m yet to meet them. Carol and her husband, Ian, own and operate Single Transport Services, a specialised transport company they commenced on 13 February 1980 in the north Queensland city of Mackay.


Some 10km to the west is the small township of Walkerston. The main thoroughfare, Dutton Street, is a section of the Peak Downs Highway, a major freight route to the west of Mackay. The stretch of road has grown from its horse and cart days in 1876 to a major heavy vehicle freight route and the only B-double route west of Mackay. Five decades ago, the narrow roadway through the small town of Walkerston was flagged as a serious danger to road users and the local community.


Despite massive growth in the mining industry, which kicked off in the early 1970s, and the route being deemed in urgent need of realignment to bypass the township of Walkerston, this section of highway remains largely unchanged to this day. For decades, the Peak Downs Highway has been recognised as infrastructure of significant importance to the Mackay Region and the Bowen Basin. The highway accommodates many thousands of vehicles on a daily basis, including fuel trucks that move approximately six million litres of bulk fuel each day, plus numerous other freight vehicles, all providing vital supplies to the various mines that operate throughout the Bowen Basin.


While the massive increase in truck traffic since the early 1970s is bad enough, of even greater concern to the community is the explosive potential of the freight known as ammonium nitrate, a substance widely used by the mining industry and one that’s transported in bulk quantities through Walkerston multiple times each day.


In fact, in 1972, what everyone had hoped would never happen, did happen. On the Fitzroy Development Road, 90km from Taroom in central Queensland, an electrical fault caused a fire in a semi-trailer carrying ammonium nitrate, sparking a massive explosion. The devastating explosion killed three people including the truck driver, and was heard and felt up to 88km away.

With such a scary scale of devastation, albeit mercifully in an isolated location, it’s hardly surprising then–Police Minister Tom Newberry was galvanised into action in calling for the Walkerston bypass. His concerns were obviously well founded. It is truly mind numbing to think about the social cost, both in lives and property, if such a disaster were to occur within close proximity of a town like Walkerston.


Slow Progress


The Federal Government have finally committed $120 million of the estimated $160 million required to complete a bypass. However, to complete this much awaited project, the state government is yet to commit publicly to integrating the Walkerston Bypass with the Mackay Ring Road to complete both projects together.


Currently it is not proposed to even start until after Stage 1 of the Mackay Ring Road is completed in another three years, and then only if all the funding is committed. Logically, the Mackay Ring Road and Walkerston Bypass should be completed together or it will be at least another five years before dangerous goods and trucks will be able to bypass Walkerston.


Perusing the figures for heavy-vehicle crashes in the vicinity of Walkerston in recent times is indeed a sobering exercise. For instance, between 2012 and 2014 there were a staggering 46 heavy-vehicle crashes recorded, with three involving loaded B-double fuel tankers just west of Walkerston.


While it might be considered fortunate that to date no catastrophic accidents involving heavy vehicles have occurred within the township of Walkerston, the longer this amount of heavy vehicle and dangerous goods traffic is forced to pass through the town, the more likely it is that something serious will happen. It could be simply a matter of time, and the consequences could be deadly.