It is possible to maintain a sustainable, long-term timber transport business in southern WA, but it does come at a price. Tim Giles on the issues surrounding timber haulage in Australia’s west.
Areas like the south‑west of Australia have a delicately balanced economy depending on a small number of key industries.
One such industry segment is timber production, a market that has changed radically in recent years as the felling of old-growth forest was drastically cut back. Reacting to the dramatically changed business landscape, a number of timber felling and hauling businesses have now entered the process of modernising their operations.
Take South West Haulage: Based in Manjimup, halfway between Bunbury and Albany in Western Australia, it had to endure a difficult time to continue to run as a family business and make the best of the current timber industry situation, but experience and openness to change have helped it survive.
Owner Greg Smeathers has been working in and around the forests of Manjimup for over 50 years and has seen some dramatic changes in the timber industry. At the same time, he saw South West Haulage grow and adapt to the changing environment. “I started here in 1962 as an apprentice mechanic, and over the years I have driven trucks, skidders, loaders – I had a go at everything. In fact, I’m still quite hands-on now and do a bit of mechanical work on the trucks myself,” he says.
“In the early days, the company was all about logging and haulage. We were cutting both Karri and Jarrah, and the work was very different then from what is now. They were very big logs and we were handling them with big equipment like Caterpillar D8s.”
A few years ago, Greg and his sons eventually purchased the company from the original owners after being with it for most of his working life. Today, South West Haulage employs 43 people and runs 15 trucks out on the highway. In the normal run of things, though, only about 12 of the trucks are working at any one time – as an operation like this is always in need of spare trucks due the kind of conditions they have to work in.
Finding the right staff is the real issue, according to Greg. “Getting any employees has become hard because they can get $60 or $70 an hour at the mines,” he says. “We cannot compete with that, I don’t even try. Mechanics are probably the hardest to get, because the mines just seem to gobble them up. We have apprentices all of the time, but as soon as they finish their time, they’re off. We offer them on-going training but I just can’t offer that kind of money.
“In saying that, we have always had a good crew, and they don’t turnover very much once they decided to stay. We have one guy who has been with us for 42 years. And over the past 12 months, we have seen quite a few of those people who went away come back to us.”
Those who return are suprised that there is only little work in the oldgrowth forests, as it has been limited by environmental rules reducing the time to ‘manage’ the karri and jarrah forests to the summer months.
The felling of blue gum plantations, which have spread all around the South West of WA, now creates the on-going regular work for South West Haulage. After being harvested, the blue gum has to be transported to a processing plant in Bunbury, 100 km away on the coast, for chipping and eventual export.
The vast majority of the harvesting work is within 100 km of the company’s base in Manjimup. Therefore the trucks and their drivers all work in the local area and manage to get home to the depot every night.
The basic configuration used by the company today consists of a prime mover hauling a tri-axle semi-trailer, which is coupled to a four-axle dog trailer. It is usually loaded with three large bundles of timber, two on the semi and a third on the dog trailer. Such a combination can run out to 27.5 m in length and up to 76 tonnes GCM, which equates to a payload of around 52 tonnes. Most of the trucks in the fleet are fitted with 550 horsepower engines – the latest additions being two Caterpillar CT 630 prime movers, specified with day cabins to reduce overall vehicle length and maximise load space.
“You always want more horsepower. When I started, we were using vehicles with just 150 hp. But from our point of view now, 500 to 550 hp seems adequate for the job.”
In the past, the fleet consisted mainly of Kenworths, specified at the heavyduty end of the spectrum to handle the arduous tasks in the old-growth forests. But now that the work has moved away from the native forests to the blue gum plantations, tare weight has become the main concern for South West Haulage when looking at trucks.
The company has also moved away from just looking for the heaviest spec to prioritising a combination of strength and unladen mass. The working life of each truck is expected to be up to one million kilometres, and this can be achieved in just over six years for a truck handling the blue gum plantation timber work.
“The economics of the industry have changed from having the toughest equipment to be able to handle the conditions in the native forests to a rather industrial situation,” says Greg. “Timber haulage is now a numbers game. How many kilograms of product can be shifted from point A to point B, in what time and using how much fuel?
“Interestingly, there is no contract between us and the company which owns the timber,” he adds. “We have been doing work for them, either directly or indirectly, since around 1950. In all that time, there’s never been a written contract. They tell me they are working on one at the moment – but they’ve been telling me that for ages.
“We do have a contract with the Forests Products Division for all of the native timber which we carry, but I don’t feel any more secure about that work than I do about the work we have no contract for. All government contracts are written in a way that allows them to get out at any time anyway.”
The average trip from the point of harvesting to the chipping plant in Bunbury is between 100 km and 150 km. This means working with plantation timber sees the trucks handling only around 10 per cent of the work off the bitumen. In contrast, when the operation is handling the native forest work, just about all of the transport is done on gravel roads.
“We try and do a roadworthy on each truck about every three months,” says Smeathers. “Legally, you only have to do one once a year, but I find it works quite well. It takes time but we do every truck and every trailer and generally you can pick up on something that’s got to be done. As you can imagine, the most difficult thing is making time to do all of this checking. We have 35 trailers and it’s difficult to schedule them into the workshop.”
Because the business runs a lot of equipment apart from the trucks hauling the timber, for example skidders and loaders, there is a strong engineering and workshop culture within the operation. Much of the work done on the vehicles is done in-house or by local contractors. Over the last 10 years, the company has built a completely new set of trailers as the operation has migrated across from hauling the massive logs of the native forest timber to large bundles of smaller logs.
In order to run the combinations efficiently, South West Haulage has, like other timber haulage operators in the area, conditions attached to their vehicle permits. These conditions are specified by the local shire, in return for access to local shire roads.
They stipulate the trucks must only run in daylight hours and there is also a school bus curfew; trucks are not allowed to be on the road around school start and finish times. These time constraints mean most trucks can manage two trips a day, at most, and if the collection site is a little further from the port, they have to settle for a 1.5 trip solution (one trip one day, two the next).
As a result, industry in rural areas can be problematic, as constraints seem to continually rear business owners’ heads. The initial shock that hit small communities like Manjimup when native logging was sharply curtailed a few years ago still resounds many years later. While some are living in the past and longing for the ‘good old days’ of big timber logging, others have moved on, keeping the community alive. South West Haulage is one of those companies that have moved on and continue to contribute to the local economy.
They still function as a traditional family-owned business, but are willing to move with the times, adapt to the new conditions and keep this small rural community going.