European Vocation

A respected road freight operator for more than 50 years, Simon National Carriers, recently deployed six new Scania R 540s into its European-only linehaul division.

Learning from experience informs the bedrock of the exemplary customer service Simon National Carriers offers its nationwide customer base. Interstate road freight is, to this day, a major stream of revenue for the business.

It provides extensive B-double and roadtrain services carrying wholesale general freight items from air conditioning equipment, finished construction materials, vehicle parts, glass, air filters and larger agricultural and other machinery.

As these operations don’t require higher mass limits the B-double combinations are rated to 64.5 tonnes and can be found running the length of the eastern seaboard from Townsville through Brisbane and Sydney to Melbourne and even, on occasion, across to Adelaide.

A longstanding industry leader, David Simon, the Executive Chairman at the company and former Chair of the Australian Trucking Association, made an observation in the 1980s that has stayed with him to this day.

He noticed, at the time, that the drivers of the European cabover commercial vehicles were by and large fresher at the end of a trip when compared with their colleagues who were behind the wheel of bonneted American-designed trucks.

Ever since then the company has gone with a blanket rule of using strictly European trucks in its linehaul division.

Into that same division have gone six new Scania R 540s with a modified inline six-cylinder engine especially befitting B-double operators although David won’t discount their utilisation in other applications.

David Simon, Simon National Carriers Executive Chairman.

“They might also be used on a small amount of roadtrain and A-double work for us as well,” he says. “For the most part they are suited to the B-double task performed up until recently by our Scania V8s which they have been brought in to replace.”

Added to Scania’s 13-litre range last year, the Scania R 540 boasts an extra 40 horsepower over the previous top-of-the-range 13-litre engine sold in Australia.

Torque increases to 2,700 Nm at a range of 1,000 to 1,300 rpm, with the new Euro 6 compliant 13-litre DC 166 delivering 100 Nm over its nearest rival according to Scania. Drivers appointed to the new trucks by Simon National Carriers have so far offered overwhelmingly positive assessments.

“We’ve received good feedback from drivers in regard to the power-to-fuel,” says David. “Again, the fuel economy is impressive and that goes for any of the European vehicles in the trial runs we’ve done with Scania, Volvo or Mercedes. They’ve all been very good on fuel and all very good on driver acceptance.”

The relationship with Scania for Simon National Carriers goes back to the turn of the recent century when it purchased the first Euro 4 emission rated Scania brought into the country.

With each decade the fleet has introduced the newest available engine technology from the Swedish truckmaker.

The decision to upgrade its Scania V8s is part of the company’s latest fleet replacement schedule being employed across the heavy vehicles this calendar year. Another 30 prime movers will eventually be substituted over an 18-month period as part of this initiative.

“It’s a fairly significant program within the company,” says David. “Right now there’s another 19 prime movers awaiting delivery between now and August.”

Safety and fatigue, as David sees it, will continue to dominate the conversation surrounding efficient commercial vehicles given quotidian measurements for fuel economy and reliability are cumulative and can span months to determine the results across mixed loads.

The driver ride, he says, with its quietness, the integration of the safety technology and the automated gearboxes, is all incredibly accomplished by the main European OEMs.

“As NSW State Manager in 1980s when we were doing different vehicle-testing I distinctly remember drivers that would get out of a European truck were much fresher versus a driver who got out the American product,” he recalls. “Even back then the much better ride and the quieter cabs made a noticeable difference. The drivers, clearly, didn’t feel the same pressure in that environment and that helped make the decision of going to a purely European fleet. So that’s where we’ll stay. The Americans have a come a long way but the Europeans have continued to move ahead and I think they’ve got a great product.”

A new Scania R 540 embarks on a journey from Brisbane.

It’s not uncommon to canvass the experienced drivers for their opinions when it comes to the new heavy vehicle technology.

“The best drivers will have a different preference in the seating position or their perception of power so we try to get to a few drivers for that kind of feedback,” David says. “The feedback on any of the European product is generally good these days. But we do canvas their views — the group’s views, not one individual. We’re looking for feedback and for fuel results.”

That said individual drivers, especially enduring commercial vehicle operators of the calibre employed at Simon National Carriers, will always have their preferences.

“One of our long-term drivers was given one of these new Scanias to evaluate and commented that it was the best vehicle he has ever driven,” David explains. “Another driver will have a different view, too. Having the gear controls on the stalk is very well done on the Scania versus down on the side of the seat which Volvo have persisted with. I’d like to see that moved to a more sensible position like Scania have done. But these are minor things. The main thing we’re looking for is driver safety and here they’re all fairly comparable.”

The linehaul drivers at the company and in general across the industry are owed, David believes, a debt of gratitude from the wider population.

Over the last 12 months, particularly with the restrictions on people movements and border crossing, an already difficult job was not made any easier by the inconsistencies of the states.

It was particularly hard on Queensland drivers, who helped keep, despite enormous daily challenges, the economy afloat at great personal cost.

“For us, the Queensland drivers deserve particular recognition. Over quite a long period they travelled interstate and whenever they came home for their long breaks whether it was two days off, a week or fortnight or even a longer holiday they had to self-isolate at home while they weren’t working,” David says.

“They couldn’t go to the pub or have friends around. They have sacrificed enormously in ensuring they did the right thing to protect the community. Considering we, as an industry, had a massive number of heavy vehicle movements in and out of hotspots every day they did a great job keeping everyone protected.”

These impositions on drivers, however, have taken a toll. As a result, the company lost a handful of quality experienced drivers to early retirement. With ever-expanding powers under executive fiat, some state governments did an industry, already with a widely publicised driver shortage, no favours.

“There’s no reason why we couldn’t have had consistent rules to get good sensible outcomes but every state wanted to do it differently. Different paperwork. Different day requirements,” he says. “That was a nightmare and with every iteration they would change the rules as well. They didn’t necessarily flow the information through in a timely manner. Industry associations such as the QTA did an incredible job getting information out in a timely manner, generally well ahead of formal government advice, with each of these changes”

Despite this David believes the company has an advantage in bringing heavy vehicle operators through its system.

“We’ve got the ability that a lot of the others don’t and that’s the ability to bring drivers on in body trucks and bring them through into semis over time,” he says.

“A lot of the industry doesn’t have that ability. Operations managers might lose a good local rigid driver when they upgrade to a semi and that’s not always the driver’s preferred choice but that’s the only way the industry can get semi drivers the required experience. We do that to get them experience in a rigid and move them onto a semi and a multi-combination vehicle in time. But it’s not always easy in some of our smaller depots to do that.”

Simon National Carriers employs an IT team of six programmers that work across its warehouses, in-vehicle systems, and freight management systems. Keeping the inhouse freight management system updated is a constant job. The first generation software was developed back in the mid-’80s and has evolved continuously since then, with the interactive in-vehicle component introduced around 2006.

“We have work diaries, driver communications, fault reporting, everything in the cabin,” says David. “All of our pricing, invoicing, freight tracking is all reported through that software.”

Even though the linehaul operation was running at capacity with further increases in demand last year, the warehousing business suffered under global supply chain disruptions. Warehouses went empty for long periods and when stock was eventually delivered it was cleared out invariably the next day.”

Scania R 540 at the Simon National Carriers home base.

Most diversified road transport businesses were confronted by similar challenges when having to juggle between two or more divisions.

Meanwhile calls amid industry to have ADR regulations amended to permit wider heavy vehicles on Australian roads has, through Tesla’s appeals to the National Transport Commission, reignited debate around the issue.

For his part David supports a move to the European standard of 2.65m for fridge vans and suggests there are strong arguments for it but denies it has nothing to do with putting more freight on the truck.

“That’s about better carbon outcomes through better insulation. It will lower fuel use in refrigeration units and also open up some European product to be brought in,” he says. “We’ve got a very strong trailer manufacturing industry in Australia and I think it will stand up on its own two feet with quality product and lead times. More 2.65 metre vans that are more fuel efficient will see strong uptake by industry.”

But in regard to the cab itself he doesn’t support what Tesla, who are unlikely to have much of a future in long haul, are proposing.

“I don’t know what their range is with a fully loaded 68-tonne B-double but it’s going to need a couple of charges between Brisbane and Sydney,” he says. “They’re certainly going to find a market. They’ll find a use in metropolitan distribution no doubt, and there will be lots of other product competing in that space whether it’s fully electric or a hydrogen fuel cell like on long haul.”

Over Easter David embarked on a long trip in one of the new Scania R 540s up and down the Bruce Highway north of Gympie where sections are begging to be made dual carriage.

“There are some very narrow sections of road still on our highways. I would not want to see something another 27 cms wider, supposedly what Tesla are looking at, on those roads,” he says. “The road itself is OK but the line-marking and ‘railroad track’ linemarking only 8 foot 7 or 8 foot 8 wide between the white lines and then a divided painted island. Those stretches are very narrow and there’s still some narrow bridges so we don’t need to be going to the sort of widths Tesla are talking about.”

With commercial freight operators trying to keep up with demand and infrastructure burdened by governments playing catch up David is wary that funding for these projects must be appropriate to what traffic volumes dictate. He appreciates noticeable developments taking place on the northern side of Rockhampton where the road is being widened and duplicated.

“It’s taken 25 years to duplicate the Pacific and we need to keep pushing further up the Bruce and having gone up the inland route from Roma to Emerald to Charter’s Towers there’s a lot of money that needs spending on that road as an alternative,” he says. “We need an alternative when it’s flooding on the coast. We’ve also got to continue the upkeep needed on the Pacific and the Hume and we need to duplicate the bridge at Gundegai that’s stopping the use of A-doubles between Melbourne and Sydney. There’s a lot of money that needs spending and we can’t spend it all at once.”