Road Trains from Down Under

Coyote - Road Trains in Australia - Coyote Logistics

When you think of Australia, images of kangaroos, koalas, the Sydney Opera House, the “Mad Max”film series, Foster’s beer, and a slew of Hollywood stars like Hugh Jackman and Margot Robbie probably come to mind. However, for those in the logistics and transport industry, Australia is synonymous with something else entirely: road trains.

Road trains are as Australian as a “kookaburra sitting in an old gum tree” and a Vegemite sandwich. These massive rigs consisting of a semi-tractor and two or three trailers, are an iconic sight as they traverse the vast, remote expanses of the Outback.

In the automotive world of the land Down Under, road trains hold the symbolic status, just like the Ute (pickup trucks based on Holden, Ford and Chrysler passenger cars), and the Ford XB Falcon –car immortalized in the “Mad Max” films.

So, where did the idea for these colossal road trains, which can weigh up to 200 tons, originate? What makes them stand out? Let’s dive into the answers.

What Is a Road Train?

The term “road train”is a rather common name, because officially they are called Long Combination Vehicles (LCVs). As we mentioned above, a road train is a semi-tractor with more than one trailer. These semi-trailers are connected by so called converter dollies, thanks to which the entire set remains maneuverable. These are the most common road train configurations in Australia:

  • B-double: tractor and two semi-trailers connected by a dolly (length up to 26 m, load capacity 62.5 t);
  • Triple: tractor and three semi-trailers (length up to 53.5 m, load capacity 115.5 t);
  • AB-Quad: tractor, one B-double semi-trailer and two additional semi-trailers (length up to 53.5 m, load capacity 135 t);
  • BAB Quad: tractor, one B-double semi-trailer, one additional semi-trailer and another B-double semi-trailer (length up to 53.5 m, load capacity 135 t).

Australian road trains are powered by tractor units of various American (Kenworth, Mack) and European (Volvo, Scania) brands. Models with a cabin above the engine and ones with a classic configuration (cabin behind the engine) are used, but the latter are the most common choice for drivers of these behemoths. Tractors must have high-powered engines (600-800 HP) to be able to tow so many trailers at the same time.

In addition, road trains are also distinguished by “Long Vehicle”or “Road Train”boards mounted on the front of the tractor and on the semi-trailer closing the set (yellow with black letters). Also distinctive are large bumpers that are intended to protect the trucks from damage resulting from hitting wild animals ( e.g. kangaroos) that live freely in the Outback and may suddenly cross the road.

Lobster1, Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported

Kenworth Road Train in Rural Australia (Author: Lobster1, Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported, Wikipedia)

History of Road Trains in Australia

The first road trains appeared on the roads of the Australian Outback in the 19th century, but their range was limited, which is not surprising because the trailers were towed by steam-powered tractors (so-called locomobiles or land locomotives). The steam road train was intended to be an alternative to the Afghan camel caravans that dominated the transport of cargo across the Australian interior in the nineteenth century.

In the 1930s, the Australian government tested the AEC Roadtrain –a specialized set developed by Leyland and AEC at the request of the British colonial authorities. The British were looking for a vehicle capable of transporting goods in difficult terrain in Africa and Down Under. The AEC Roadtrain consisted of an eight-wheeled tractor and two trailers, also with eight wheels. In Australia, it was used for goods transport purposes in the Northern Territory. The tests were promising, but design flaws were also revealed: an underpowered engine and an open cabin, which left drivers either boiling in the desert heat or freezing to the bone when the temperature dropped at night. The AEC Roadtrain turned out to be only an experiment (the only prototype preserved to this day can be seen in the museum in Alice Springs), but the idea behind it, to attach more than one trailer to a tractor, survived.

The idea was picked up by Kurt Johannsen, a mechanic from the Outback, who was the creator of the first road train in the modern sense of the term. When he was tasked with transporting 100 cattle to a farm in central Australia, he decided to design two trailers with torsion axles and attach them to an American Diamond-T truck. “Bertha”, as the creator called the first modern road train in history, marked the trail followed by other Aussie carriers. Since then, road trains have dominated road transport in the Outback, and the authorities of the states that make up the Commonwealth of Australia have regulated the rules for moving these giants on roads.

Why Are Road Trains Crucial to the Australian Economy?

To put it briefly: without road trains, cargo transport in the Outback area would simply not exist. Smaller towns located in the Australian interior would basically have no access to basic goods if it were not for these road giants. Moreover, Aboriginal communities are almost entirely dependent on road trains for supplies.

Although Australian road trains are most associated with the transport of cattle and sheep, they are basically used to moving all types of loads: food, fuel, mine output and other goods.

In the Outback, the roads are single-lane, and the condition leaves much to be desired, and there are also long unpaved sections. Since loads have to be transported from point A to B, thousands of kilometers apart, it is much more efficient to do it using road trains, which carry more cargo at a time. The roads in the Australian interior are often straight sections stretching for hundreds of kilometers, there is little traffic, so it is a perfect working environment for large rigs.

However, road trains are usually not allowed into larger cities;they must stop at special reloading points on the outskirts, where individual trailers and dollies are detached and then attached to tractors that will deliver the loads to their final destinations.

Of course, road trains are ideal for record breaking. For example, in Queensland in 2006, a Mack Titan tractor covered a distance of 100 m while pulling as many as 113 trailers. The set weighed 1,300 tons and was 1,474 m long.

Road Trains in Other Parts of the World

The road train is a symbol of Australia, but they can also be found in other countries. In the USA, there are the Rocky Mountain Double (tractor truck with one short and one long trailer) and Turnpike Double (two long trailers) configurations. In Europe, Sweden and Finland allow the use of longer and heavier sets, including configurations such as HCT (High Capacity Transport) up to 32 meters long. In the Middle East, road trains are used to transport oil (Saudi Arabia).