Road-train driver Shane Cordwell covers nearly a quarter of a million kilometres a year and he loves every one.
Story By Richard Middleton
Few people cover more of outback Australia’s baking bitumen and dirt tracks than a road-train driver. From cattle to cars, apples to ammunition, these triple-trailer vehicles provide a vital service ferrying goods back and forth to outback communities, remote stations and small towns.
Shane Cordwell, 50, is an expert in the road-transport business and has been driving road-trains across the outback for more than 20 years. He drives about 20,000 kilometres every month and reckons he's covered at least five million kilometres during his time at the wheel – without an accident.
During this time he’s transported everything from fresh fish and seafood from Cairns to Brisbane through to delivering explosives to the isolated mines in the West Australian outback.
Today he’s on a weekly run from Toowoomba to Darwin and back, a round trip of about 6600km. He drives for Bill Baskett Transport and pulls trailers for John Bain, two of the outback’s best-known and most respected transport
companies. Setting off from their Toowoomba base, his route will take him along the Landsborough Highway, through Cloncurry and Blackall to Mount Isa, before heading across the endless plains of the Barkly Tablelands. Turning right at Three Ways, he then heads north through the Northern Territory to Darwin.
“I’ve been driving for about 30 years now, and roadtrains for about
20,” Shane says. “Now I’m driving a Mack Fleetliner – it’s 53.5 metres
long. With 18 gears it can cruise at about 90kph all day long. We can haul up to 115 tonnes, but this run we only have about 105 tonnes on board. There’s around $1.5 million worth of truck and produce going down the road, each day. It’s not a physically tough job, but it is hard in a mental sense – you need to keep your wits about you. We face the same rules as your normal car driver, despite the fact I drive around 200,000km per year ¬– you need to give 110 percent to the job."
After an early start Shane stops at Mitchell, about 400km along the Warrego Highway. Regulations permit drivers to run three trailers from this point, so trailers are taken back and forth between the Toowoomba base to be picked up. Along with tighter rules on road-train routes, driver hours are now closely monitored. However, Shane still expects to work up to 14 hours per day in Queensland, and more in other states.
"We do put in long hours, but there aren’t many accidents,” he says. “The trick is to have a sleep before you get really tired. A few trailers get rolled every so often but most of the people who haul three trailers have a bit of nous about them. It's a responsibility pulling these things. Sometimes I'll go a whole trip and only be in touch with Bill once, just to let him know I've dropped the trailers and when I'll be back."
Today's freight is three trailers worth of produce from Brisbane's fruitgrowers. Everything from watermelons to apples, oranges, cucumbers and lettuces are being carried to Darwin, with a couple of drops in Katherine first.
This story excerpt is from Issue #54
Outback Magazine: Aug/Sep 2007