West Side Story

Western Australian transport specialist, Freight Lines Group, has wasted no time obtaining new commercial vehicles from Penske Australia for its statewide operations. Though the evolution of the business has been swift in recent years it has not forgotten its regional roots.

The maturing of Esperance, the idyllic hamlet on a protected patch of coastline on the Great Australian Bite, as a destination for key industry was a century in the making.

Not unlike the famous wildflower trails that have long drawn holidaymakers from the Goldfields to the north, its sudden flourishing, might be said to have happened rapidly during the 1960s, along with the many other torrents of progress that befell the wider culture including, more voraciously, the agri-sector.

Land in Esperance, according to historical records, was going under the plow at the equivalent of 100 acres an hour in 1960, leading it to become an agricultural supply centre for much of the state. Construction of a breakwater led to the first ship to berth in Esperance in 1965.

The area, by now home to 15 new farms a year, warranted a coordinated road freight service. Against this background one of Western Australia’s largest, privately owned, commercial transport companies came of age.

In 1979 John Harding bought the company established by Founder Ian Campbell two years previously, as an outfit whose primary concerns was fuel distribution and carting fresh fruit and vegetables.

Ownership has since changed hands several times over the intervening years and as of 2008 remains under the stewardship of Managing Director Michael Harding.

Freight Lines Group, as it is now commonly known, is proving large enough, inventive enough, and generous enough to positively impact the communities with which it works across the state.

The company puts back around a quarter of a million dollars into local communities they service every year.

This includes sundry sports clubs, non-profit organisations, local newspapers and regional groups. Earlier this year, it carted an estimated 20 trailer loads of costumes, sets, generators and production equipment from Perth to the location of Before Dawn, a World War 1 feature film, being shot on a rural property 45 kms west of Esperance. Transportation services, which included a WW1 ambulance and pallets for building trenches, were all volunteered by Freight Lines Group (FLG).

The business long ago expanded into mining, bulk commodities, agriculture and specialised freight. The Ravensthorpe Nickel Mine, opening in 2008, provided impetus for further growth within the group.

Company depots in Perth, Albany, Geraldton, Kalgoorlie, Ravensthorpe and Esperance reflects the areas FLG chiefly concentrates, in accordance with the regional nature of Western Australian industry.

At present FLG’s commercial vehicle fleet capacity sits currently at 140 trucks with 450 pieces of trailering equipment and counting. The company can dedicate trailers for the length of the contract or just supply as required for loads as they are scheduled. All trailers, which cover a vast spec of drop decks, curtainsiders, mill ball trailers and skels for mill ball containers, refrigerated trailers and bulk trailers, ride on air bag suspension.

Before last year, MAN was a relatively unknown product to FLG. An opportunity to introduce MAN vehicles to the company presented itself in mid-2020 after the Penske Perth dealership had delivered two new Western Star vehicles, which have since performed well, into its grain haulage division.

Subsequent sales have included seven additional MAN TGX 26.540 XLX cabs, the remainder of which became operational in July.

As Penske Australia supplies vehicles on repair/maintenance contracts with five-year terms, the accomplished performance and capabilities of that first MAN in April has proven a catalyst for a positive relationship that has since satisfied the customer support on the vehicles that Anthony Whelan and his team requires. Anthony is the Freight Lines Group Chief Financial Officer.

“We’ve received good feedback from the drivers as far as drivability goes,” he says.

“We’re happy with the fuel economy and the comfort of the MANs. That feedback has been relayed by drivers to the team in as far as the considerations that we closely looked at initially. Although it’s early days reliability hasn’t been an issue which is obviously a big factor in road freight.”

MAN TGX 26.540 B-double.

These new trucks are all working out of Perth from a distribution hub and ferry general and ambient freight out to the regional areas as B-doubles and pocket roadtrains.

The contract is for a million kilometres in five years. In other words they are to spend plenty of time on-road at distance.

Rated at 90 tonnes, the 540 horsepower MAN is suited to linehaul palletised freight in curtainsiders and refrigerated trailers.

The Euro 5 rated MAN TGX 26.540 comes equipped with the manufacturer safety pack which includes Adaptive Cruise Control, Pedestrian Detection, ABS and EBS. Certain units in the fleet have reached their end of use according to Anthony — hence the changes.

“A lot of these MANs are replacing some other European brands,” he says. “Up until this point we had no MANs. We took the first one on to give it an assessment. I suppose, given the current climate of supply shortages, we were open to conducting a trial and we haven’t encountered any issues with its reliability. The fuel burn numbers are quite good as was the availability for the MAN. They slot in quite nicely into our general freight business — an important area that we operate in.”

Ongoing and unabating demand for commercial vehicles, given component shortages and supply chain disruptions, suggest a shift is taking place in the market in which OEMs, with stock on hand, are in a unique position to capitalise with fleets who are pre-empting, as a response to market diktats, new truck purchases beyond next year.

“The fact is, in this massive chain, you’ve really got to be looking at least 12 months in advance. Even though you might get told seven or eight months the window is 12 months for projects and as far as planning goes the window is more like 15 to 16 months,” says Anthony.

“If you’re looking at your fleet, changing out something, getting pricing and confirming an order and with that order you’re confirming that it will be ready 12 months down the track. By the time you go through that whole process the whole planning part of it is at least 14 months if not longer. That puts challenges on organisations where you’re looking to replace fleet. You’ve just got to have a much longer time frame for full visibility.”

An MTData system connects to a Samsung Tablet in every truck and monitors driver hours and break times. Live tracking in all trucks is beneficial to both FLG and its customers in knowing their location when required.

“For local trucks this means they can easily be diverted to collect extra or urgent freight during any day on their local runs and this is controlled via the local Fleet Rostering Advisor and MTData,” says Anthony.

“The MTData system allows the tracking of trucks, loads, fatigue, driver communication, climate and road condition warnings. All this is designed to actively manage fatigue.”

Freight visibility is available throughout the transport, storage and delivery to customer locations.

An online tracking system allows customers to track the freight from the time of collection or drop-off at FLG depots to when the freight is ultimately scanned off at various sites.

This provides full end-to-end track and trace. Even though head office for general freight is now located in Perth, only minutes from the Penske dealership, Esperance still serves as the base of the business. Fruit and veg, though not as pronounced in operations these days, is very much a part of the company DNA.

Operations with mining customers, which also entails overnight hotshots, is balanced with the core work of bulk and general freight across the sprawling Midwest-Goldfields-Great Southern area.

FLG heavy vehicle operator Grant Morris.

Esperance is home to the new Western Star FXC 4964s. Powered by a 600hp Cummins engine and rated with a GVM of 130 tonnes, the Western Stars are equipped with grain tippers and tankers and are quite often carting both ways, usually grain in one direction and fertiliser or lime in the other.

“This year’s season is fairly reasonable compared to many we have done. It’s sitting around the average or just above,” explains Anthony.

“The challenge, particularly in Western Australia at the moment, assuming there are no untoward weather events, is the next harvest is potentially looking huge. We’re seeing that, not only from the weather conditions which are ideal at the moment, but also the farmers and the inputs they are putting into their operations is huge this year for next year’s harvest. So next year could be quite a challenging year for the grain industry and suppliers, and us servicing both our customer and the farmer.”

Another challenge for the business is maintaining its pool of drivers and attracting new ones.

“Particularly in Western Australia where the mining sector is booming as well,” Anthony notes. “For anyone willing to do the FIFO [fly-in/fly-out] work there is some good opportunities going at some fairly reasonable rates offered up in those mining site areas.”

The advantage of not having to rely on FIFO workers means the vast majority of FLG’s staff are home on a regular basis each week. According to Anthony this is a great incentive to attracting a transport and logistics workforce.

“We are also able to easily mobilise drivers from any one of our locations to support elsewhere when needed,” he says. “Even though we have expertise spread throughout our branches which, in this day and age, is much easier to do in moving people around the branches given the technology that is now around. Unless our staff have got a specific operational role, they could be in any one of our locations.”

Beyond this, having vehicles, like the MAN, with its persuasive driver acceptance, helps. Developing the available driver talent though must go beyond the current stocks.

A Heavy Vehicle Driving Operations Skill Set pilot launched in conjunction with Central Region TAFE aims to remove barriers to entry in Heavy Rigid (HR), Heavy Combination (HC) or Multi-Combination (MC) heavy vehicle driving through theoretical and hands-on practical truck driver training. It’s a positive step from the State Government according to Anthony.

“Looking at it, I think it will be a good feeder to the driver pool,” he says. “It will then be about upskilling those drivers to be multicombination drivers which is what we require. The skill levels and experience will need to be added over time, but it’s certainly a start to feed into that pool of drivers because that skill level can be precipitated through an opportunity to rise up and then people can move on to getting that experience of multicombination work which is valuable for our area of operations.”

The regional focus of the program and the onus on nurturing new talent, suggests a future direction for the heavy vehicle industry in Western Australia which is, unlike many of the eastern states, already less centralised.

It’s by no accident that the two concepts are closely connected at Freight Lines Group.

“The interesting thing in our business is that it’s grown itself out of Esperance and it’s very focused in helping out regional areas,” Anthony says. “The support shown by the business for those small type of regional community groups, whether it’s a bowls club, a local association or something bigger like helping reduce the transport costs on an independent film production, the regional community will always be important to us.”

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