The Highlands. Trucking industry. Cover story

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1 Cover story Words by Mike Butler Trucking industry The Highlands Highway It s the nation s most important transport artery and is about to get a lot more important. PNG Report hitched a ride with the industry that all the others rely on. Choke points are always a concern for truckers on the Highlands Highway 14

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3 It s a devil of a road in God s garden requiring, if you re lucky, four days for a return trip. The highest pass is a dizzying 3000m and 24 degree inclines and declines on gravel are common. Gilbert Delaney from East West Transport shows a hacked-into sea container Average truck Modified Kenworth with Cummins engine Average speed 20km/h over a 1600km round trip Average truck lifespan 10 years Average driver PNG national (protected industry) T hink you ve got a tough day at the office? Try the constant threat of armed hold-up, roadkill that can end up getting you killed and teeth-jangling road conditions as your constant companion. That s the norm for truck drivers on the Highlands Highway. As PNG s major transport artery, this road delivers more supplies to more mineral projects, timber exports 16 Average truck load 25 tonnes Average tanker load 36,000 litres fuel consumption 1 litre/km Biggest companies Trans Wonderland Ltd, IPI Mountain Transport, Mapai, East West, Traisa Transport and coffee plantations than any other in the country. And it s about to get economically even more important, with the construction phase of the behemoth PNG LNG project in the Southern Highlands relying on it. It s estimated traffic will almost double in the next two years to accommodate PNG LNG. Problem is, the highway is barely able to handle what s already on it, according to transport leaders. PNG Road Transport Association president Jacob Luke says its been been neglected for years, resulting in knock-on costs for the provinces and industries it feeds. The condition of the road is getting worse, as well as the security of assets and law and order. The lives of drivers are always at risk, he says. Now, as part of a three-year strategy, the industry is campaigning to improve the highway as a major economic priority for the country. In many ways this 800km strip hardly deserves its highway tag. Often only a single carriageway, it jags and climbs up from Lae to Mt Hagen before forking out to Porgera gold mine in Enga and PNG LNG in the Southern Highlands as well as supplying three million people along the way. It s a devil of a road in God s garden requiring, if you re lucky, four days for a return trip. The highest pass is a dizzying 3000m, 24 degree inclines and declines on gravel are common and most bridges are four metre wide 16-tonne steel trusses that you d be lucky to find on C-roads in more developed countries. None of it has road safety reflectors and while some of it is sealed, most of that is so badly potholed that when a fleet of air bag suspension trucks was attempted every bag had been either torn in half or wrecked their brackets within four months. The potholes are that big they destroy the bags, says Daryl Diehl, chief maintenance engineer at IPI Mountain Transport, the largest fuel haulage company in the country. You could put these drivers to work in countries like Australia and the US and they d think it was a dream. It s a pretty rough ride out there. Luke told the PNG Report: The government needs to allocate maybe $A2 billion to ensure a good road is reconstructed to last. This will eliminate security issues, timely deliveries and less maintenance. Around 500 prime movers

4 PNG Road Transport Association president and Mapai Transport owner Jacob Luke with one of his drivers behind him currently ply this road, contributing to 40,000 loaded truck movements per annum. Eight major transport companies operate most of these and all the companies that the PNG Report spoke to have orders placed to substantially increase their fleets. Although the PNG LNG project is about to stir up the market, Melbourne-built Kenworths are currently the brand of choice, with a few Western Stars, Internationals and Hinos thrown in. The government needs to allocate maybe $A2 billion to ensure a good road is reconstructed to last. Jacob Luke PNG Road Transport Association The Kenworths began their dominance in the early 1990s, says Luke, who as well as leading the industry body is owner of Mapai Transport which operates 74 trucks out of Mt Hagen and Lae. It s a simplified truck that can be built to our own specifications to take the conditions of the roads up here. They re quite different from Kenworths on Australian and US roads. Built more like cage fighters than prime movers, they re substantially heavier and more reinforced because making it back in one piece is more of a priority than weight. Because of the threat of holdup and driver attack, windscreens are laminated and all glass surfaces have steel grills welded on. Cabs are cut down to the bare minimum because most instruments can t handle the shaking. And big, heavy spring suspension systems are standard. Diehl says: Our trucks weigh between 48-49t while a comparable one in Australia is 45t mainly because of that. HOLD-UPS, BREAKDOWNS AND PAYOUTS Road conditions are only part of the battle for companies. Running the gauntlet of hold-ups, road blocks, tribal wars, hijackings and looting make this PNG s most exposed industry. Fuel theft is a huge problem and a constant battle, says Bill Clift, Mt Hagen manager of IPI Mountain 18

5 A burnt-out truck on the highway. The story behind this incident in late 2011 is unknown 20

6 Transport which, the week PNG Report visited, had signed a contract to supply 25 million litres of diesel to PNG LNG. Once we plug up one scam, [the locals] find another, Clift says. Although access bolts are welded shut and every fuel line is tagged and sealed each trip, IPI s 70-truck fleet still loses hundreds of thousands of litres every year to highjackings and theft. Driver theft alone from IPI Mountain Transport s fleets accounts to 50,000 litres per annum. And pity a vehicle that breaks down because, armed with only buckets and jerry cans, villagers can drain a 40,000l tanker in less than a hour, says Clift. Luke agrees. The greatest enemy is our own people that hold up trucks to loot cargo from the trucks, he says. For container freight firm East West Transport, it s a constant worry, manager Gilbert Delaney says as he shows PNG Report around its freight compound with containers that looters have opened up like tin cans. They use axes to open them After two containers were emptied by looters the driver of this truck drove for 15km on slashed up all we can do is weld them tyres to get out of paying compensation to release his truck this reportedly all happened about up and send them out again, he 300m from a police station on the outskirts of Kandiawa says, displaying photos of the Ground Support Solutions TENSAR TRIAX For stabilisation of roading base and building platforms, constructed over weak subgrades - reducing overall backfill aggregate & pavement layer depths up to 30%. BIDIM GEOTEXTILE Australian made - Non woven polyester geotextile. Providing filtration, drainage & separation between subgrade & backfill material for improved roading performance. GEOTERRA MATS A reusable interlocking mat system providing a stable working platform over soft ground conditions for heavy machinery. For all local enquiries contact our distributor: Branches Nationwide For further information visit: 21

7 Diehl estimates that another 500 trucks and drivers will be needed over the construction phase of this $US15.7 billion project, supplying every thing from fuel to materials and food for workers. IPI Group CEO Scott O Reilly says his company has ordered ten 8x8 Mercedes tankers specifically for the LNG project. He says the LNG project is challenging Kenworth s dominance here, as at K900,000 ($411,500) each, the Kenworths are expensive and it s forcing companies to look at alternatives. What will happen when the trucks are not needed after construction is completed in 2015 is another story. The greatest enemy is our own people that hold up trucks to loot cargo from the trucks. PNG Report hitched a ride with truck driver Jeffrey Wailen Jacob Luke PNG Road Transport Association The lack of drivers is also a real issue, O Reilly says. Within six months we ll be needing another 20, which is difficult because of the two PNG TEST DRIVE to three year training time lag, he What happened when the PNG Report hitched a ride says. To fill the skills gap companies are now looking to places like the We jumped into an IPI Mountain Transport overhanging branch. But Wailen handled it Philippines. tanker at Porgera gold mine after driver all with aplomb just as he did with everything It s a totally different type of Jeffrey Wailen had delivered a 36,000l diesel from negotiating blind and unmarked driving here, O Reilly says. Even load for the mine s massive dump trucks. corners to threading over narrow bridges and the driving trainers from Australia Despite having one of his tanker s five avoiding errant villagers and pigs. want to teach our guys highway compartments filled with water to weigh the At another point we hit 120km/h but driving and give them lessons on truck down, we bounced around that cab like overwhelmingly it was a slow hard crawl skidpans. It s so removed from our popping corn. around doglegs and into pot holes the size of conditions that it s nearly useless. At one point we snuck (if you can call a jacuzzis. After 2.5 hours on what he called Luke says that in November 36-wheeler sneaky) through a tribal fighting the easy part and travelling a measly 51km, last year the national government, zone that saw two men killed that day. The we couldn t face another four hours to Mt recognising the economic importance road had been blockaded two days before. Hagen and shamefully jumped ship at Wabag. of the highway, assured the industry At another, an eagle surreally dropped Wailen s pay for a 16-hour round trip? it would protect the corridors of the onto our bonnet, presumably from an 275K (around $A126). He deserves a medal. highway. He is now campaigning for those promises to become a reality. Because, ultimately the development of the industry is up to company s latest incident, which return of the truck and the police do us, he says. happened the week before in the nothing. Almost to prove to point, Luke Southern Highlands. As the truck On this occasion, instead of paying, himself recently drove a monster 40m slowed around a bend its air hoses the driver drove off on flat tyres trailer from Lae to the LNG fields were macheted and its tyres slashed, wearing them down to the rims before in what is easily the biggest rig the immobilising it and allowing scores of stopping 15km down the road. highway has ever seen. Nine axles, people at the containers. It s totally lawless, Delaney says. 72 wheels, a 66-tonne capacity and we This happened all within 300m did it, he says with a pleased smile. of a police station, and they were THE ROAD AHEAD To do it he needed a 45-man crew nowhere to be seen. It s become a With the PNG LNG project going into with cranes, bobcats and a workshop, cultural thing that if a vehicle stops, operation by 2014, trucking on the but he proved that the PNG trucking villagers think it s their right to loot Highlands Highway is gearing up for industry is doing its bit to meet the it, demand 1000 kina ($A457) for the the biggest expansion in its history. transport challenge ahead. 22

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