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A history of Australias trailer boom

From humble trucking beginnings, Australia is now home to some of the world’s highest productivity trailer combinations and what better place than home to build them


Australia is home to some of the world’s largest truck and trailer combinations, from road trains through to the ubiquitous and once game-changing B-double.

A low density population, expansive sunburnt lands and a hefty freight task forced the forward-thinking Australian transport industry to squeeze every bit of productivity out of their trailer combinations.

The famous Aussie road train was born back in 1945 when the late great Kurt Johannsen used an old US Army tank transporter and as many trailers as he could hook up to move livestock across the red centre.

That first road train, affectionately known as Bertha, now sits in the Alice Springs Hall of Fame – a tribute to the nation’s high productivity approach to trailer combinations.

Trucks and trailers continued to get bigger through the ’50s and ’60s after Bertha paved the way, and by the 1970s, the next big trailer combination development was looming, as talk of a ‘Canadian b-train’ reached Australia.

The B-double is born

Touted as the ‘father of the B-double’, Bob Pearson knows a thing or two about the one trailer combination that’s become synonymous with trucking down under.

With more than 10,000 b-doubles on our roads today, they carry more freight than any other vehicle combination.

 MaxiTRANS has remained at the forefront of trailer design, offering high-productivity options in line with the growth of the PBS scheme
MaxiTRANS has remained at the forefront of trailer design, offering high-productivity options in line with the growth of the PBS scheme

Bob first heard about the then little known trailer setup when working for the Country Roads Board, now VicRoads, back in ’79.

“I got the first letter requesting a b-double in 1979, and the original request was for a Canadian B-train,” Bob recalls.

“I went to Canada in 1981 to look at them and came back and recommended that they be allowed into Australia”

Western Australia was the first state to allow b-doubles, with Mainroads Principal Engineer (Technical Services) Tom Pedersen allowing the new combination on the roads.

“That was the first – it was only 17m long but it carried two 20 foot containers. WA was very forward in their vehicle configurations.”

After the first b-double had proved itself, it wasn’t long before Murray Goulburn requested one, which Bob says was signed off and permitted to run up and down the Murray Valley Highway in Victoria.

Other states started taking notice as interest in the b-double grew and the industry began embracing it as a safe, high-productivity option.

“There were trials in various other states; we had Queensland, New South Wales and South Australia, and all were very successful,” Bob says.

“Then there was the Review of Road Vehicle Limits (RoRVL) study in 1984/1985 and it recommended operating conditions for b-doubles. That was done by NAASRA who are now Austroads.

The study was a turning point and by the late ’80s all states aside from Victoria and Tasmania has picked up b-doubles.

Victoria presented a bump in the road for use of the b-double nationally in the late ‘80’s, but a change of Transport Minister changed all that, as Peter Spyker entered the role and promptly approved a trial in Gippsland.

“It was done for six months and then b-doubles were permitted right throughout Victoria.

“By 1990 all states had b-doubles operating apart from Tasmania which was a bit slower, but they picked them up a year or two later,” Bob explains.

The b-doubles we have now aren’t quite the same as what we first saw when they were introduced, and Bob explains that the original Canadian setup was adapted over the years to meet Australian needs.

“In the early days in terms of trailers they used two equal length trailers running 58-59 tonne in total, you weren’t allowed successive tri-axles so one tri-axle in the middle, and a single steer tandem drive. That was the standard configuration of the ’80s.”

Not long after the equal- length trailer doubles hit the scene, an intelligent design tweak allowed truckies to cart three containers by fitting a shorter a-trailer and a longer one up back.

 The 30-metre super b-double, the biggest b-doubles in the game!
The 30-metre super b-double, the biggest b-doubles in the game!

“Bob Woodward designed a truck with a standard 40 footer at the back and a tri-axle at the rear and that revolutionised the b-double. You could put three 20 foot containers on it and it just made more sense. It was a very logical approach and that was the big change, to put the 40 footer on the rear and only have a short 20 foot A-trailer.”

Through the early ’90s 23-metre B-doubles ruled the roads and more operators took on the configuration with great success, before further length increases and axle changes came in ’94.

“The next big change was that we went to tri-tri, two tri-axles, and we went from 23 metres long to 25 metres long for bridge protection with that extra tri-axle.

“That came into being in about 1994 to 1995 and then after that we had thought a fair bit of that would go into the prime mover but it didn’t so we then had to go to 26m and put a limit on the kingpin to the rear of b-double trailers.

“Not a huge amount changed after that, we went to 68 tonne with higher mass limits of course.”

Bob mentions that aside from the 30-metre  super-Bs that began operating around the docks in Melbourne, the b-double remained the same and continues to flourish even with the Performance-Based Standards (PBS) scheme gaining traction and allowing a host of new vehicle combinations.

Size Matters

The National Heavy Vehicle Regulator’s (NHVR) PBS scheme has afforded modern operators the opportunity to build combinations around specific freight requirements, while improving safety at the same time.

In 2007 the PBS scheme as we know it was approved by ministers, but the idea of performance-based standards as a means to evaluating new trailer combinations goes back to the early ’90s.

The first ‘PBS-type’ submission was sent in to the National Road Transport Commission (NTRC) in 1992, seeking permission to run dangerous goods vehicles with increased mass limits.

By the mid ’90s similar submissions had seen the development of ground-breaking combinations like B-triples, AB-triples, AAB-quads, BAB-quads and other purpose-built setups.

PBS principles were used to assess and put these combinations on the road, and as computer simulation became more prevalent this was used to test the setups.

In 1999 the NTC began designing the PBS scheme, with the end goal of improving the efficiency and safety outcomes for Australia’s road transport industry.

After many years of development and refinement, the PBS scheme was approved by Transport Ministers under administrative arrangements in 2007.

Hundreds of new vehicle designs later the PBS scheme was incorporated into Heavy Vehicle National Law (HVNL) in 2014, making Australia the first country in the world to have comprehensive heavy vehicle performance-based regulations.

“Over the past 10 years, the PBS scheme has seen over 2,800 innovative vehicle design applications with 1,988 received since Feb of 2014,” an NHVR spokesperson says.

“It is estimated that around 25 percent of all new equipment registered in Australia in 2017 would be now PBS-approved and achieving more than 90 percent in certain segments of the industry.

 A toll AB-triple, a big step up from a b-double in terms of productivity
A toll AB-triple, a big step up from a b-double in terms of productivity

“Today, we have over 6,200 PBS vehicles in operation. When the scheme started in 2007, there were relatively few applications for PBS approval in the early years, until the policy was changed to make applications easier. Since 2015, about 3,500 vehicles have been approved.”

From a productivity perspective, the scheme is working, with the uptake of A-doubles and PBS-approved truck and dog combinations exceeding expectations.

“There are easy productivity gains here so up take is good.

“The recently published NTC report on PBS demonstrated that PBS combinations provide productivity increases between 15 per cent to 30 per cent when compared to conventional vehicles.

“A PBS 30m A-Double is capable of carrying 4 TEUs (4×20 foot containers) as opposed to a prescriptive 26 metre B-double carrying 3 TEUs (3×20 foot containers), a 25 per cent productivity increase per trip – fewer trips, lower pavement wear, less fuel used and fewer vehicle emissions,” the spokesperson explains.

Local manufacturing

From Australia’s biggest trailer builders through to small local operations, the progression of the unique truck and trailer combinations has kept manufacturing down under charging along.

When founder of Moore Trailers in Queensland’s Darling Downs, Lionel Moore, first started building tippers 54 years ago things were different, but one thing has remained – locally manufactured trailers make the most sense in Australia.

“A lot of people want a custom build, the unique piece of equipment to suite how they operate,” Lionel says.

“We gave a unique environment in Australia…it’s easier to build them here.

Lionel recalls the early days when you’d get operators fitting as much as they could into a 28 to 30 foot tipper.

“That was at the start of the ’60s in those days it seemed whatever you could get on was legal.

“That was a big job because trucks didn’t have the same power, the old Benzes and Accos, and Inter AB140s with a 140hp Perkins and a 6 speed crash box,” Lionel laughs.

By the ’80s, Lionel had been building trailers for more than 20 years and saw enough potential in the trailer market to start his own business and build trailers that looked cleaner and more presentable.

Capturing a segment of the market that wanted sleek, presentable, well-built trailers allowed Lionel and his son Shayne to build the business up to the 500 trailers they now produce each year.

“We are still all steel in design, but the weights have improved.

“My first unit weighed 7.8 tonnes and the comparative unites today come out at about 7.1 tonnes.”

 An a-double, capable of carrying 4 containers compared to a 26-metre b-double which carries 3
An a-double, capable of carrying 4 containers compared to a 26-metre b-double which carries 3

A big change, Lionel says, was the inception of the B-double, and subsequent models after that like a-doubles and ab-triples – all of which Moore Trailers started building.

“In the last 20-30 years, from the ’90s to now, the B-double became a very common thing. That’s carried through to road train B-triples which we started making back in 2006, and now we have the a-doubles, ab-triples and all the PBS stuff.

“We’ve just adapted to the changes. As the ideas come forward and get approved by the road transport authorities we just adapt and build those units.”

Australia’s largest manufacturer and supplier of trailer equipment, MaxiTrans, has continued to grow alongside the evolving trailer industry, as well as rolling out a number of firsts like the Stag B-double.

MaxiTrans general manager of products and markets, Kevin Manfield, has been with the company for more than 35 years and has seen a raft of changes along the way.

Trailer lengths have developed in leaps and bounds and Kevin recalls when 40 foot trailers were the norm, rapidly lengthening over the years with the eventual introduction of b-doubles.

“In my time in the industry, I’ve seen trailers grow in length significantly – we have gone from trailers which were 20 pallets in length (the old 40 foot trailers) and they’ve just kept growing over the years,” Kevin says.

“In those days we had shorter trailers which then grew in length to 22 pallets, followed by 48 foot or 24 pallet, with the refrigerated trailers now increasing in length to 49 foot.”

“When B-doubles came in, Freighter was one of the first to manufacture b-double combinations. Between Freighter and Maxi-CUBE, they were the first to develop the rollback lead trailer in a B-double combination.

“Lusty EMS developed the Stag B-double which was a unique model in those days. It allows both trailers to unload without uncoupling, providing a significant productivity boost.”

Of course, then PBS came along and the MaxiTrans brands were able to venture into that space, further innovating and producing a large amount of approved equipment for the industry.

 The first ever b-double to hit Australia’s roads, with Canadian b-train design and equal length trailers
The first ever b-double to hit Australia’s roads, with Canadian B-train design and equal length trailers

“Since the introduction of PBS MaxiTrans has been one of the manufacturers leading the charge, having placed literally thousands of PBS-approved units on the road since the program began.

“As a result, we have a wide range of combinations in different PBS configurations, providing businesses with tailored solutions designed to boost productivity specific to their transport task.

“Today, MaxiTrans is very much focused on being a solution provider, not just a trailer manufacturer for the transport industry.”

The big focus for MaxiTrans, and something Kevin says the industry is moving towards as a whole, is further improving safety.

“Safety and compliance is a big thing that’s front and centre now,” he says.

“The implementation of electronic braking has brought a lot more safety into the specification of trailers, and compatibility between truck and trailer braking is important. Safety is paramount, so trying to make trailers as safe for everybody as possible is a key focus for MaxiTrans.”

Read the full feature in this month’s ATN. Order your copy here.

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