Features, Truckie Profiles

Smooth operator at helm of record-breaking quad

Almost a year since the world’s biggest fuel road train was put to work, Big Rigs chats to the truckie tasked with steering the massive set-up.

This PBS quad road train captured plenty of attention when it first hit the road. At 56.5 metres long, it’s actually just a few metres longer than a standard triple road train, but what sets it apart is its capacity.

With a gross combination mass (GCM) of 186.5 tonnes, it can carry up to 158,000 litres of fuel. That’s compared to about 134,000 litres in a standard quad road train operating within the same fleet.

The tankers were manufactured by Tieman Tankers and purchased by Recharge Petroleum, the BP fuel distributor in the Northern Territory and northern Western Australia – and were a long time in the making.

Operating under a trial permit, the quad set is pulled by a tri-drive Kenworth T909 powered by a 600hp X15 Cummins engine.

Placed on a set run between the Recharge Petroleum terminal in Darwin to the depot in Alice Springs, an approximately 3000-kilometre round trip, the road train has now clocked up over 150,000 kilometres – doing three of these runs a fortnight.

Operating under PBS, the super quad can carry up to 158,000 litres of fuel. Image: Recharge Petroleum

As it operates under PBS (Performance Based Standards), the quad is limited to travelling on the Stuart Highway, Tiger Brennan Drive and Berrimah Road. Whereas other quads in the fleet can travel on any road that is triple road train rated.

Experienced second generation truckie Chris Atkins is the man behind the wheel. Originally from South Australia’s Yorke Peninsula, the 39-year-old driver was seen as the perfect fit the job.

His father and uncle ran their own fuel transport business in South Australia while he was growing up, so he’s been surrounded by trucks all his life.

“When I was about eight years old, I remember Dad would push the seat right back and I’d sit behind the steering wheel and steer,” recalled Atkins.

“I spent a lot of hours in the truck with Dad and my uncle. They delivered up to Broken Hill and all over the state. I loved getting out and about – and away from my sisters!

“By about the age of 14 I was changing gears and driving by myself. I was also doing a lot of stuff around the yard like unhooking and backing the truck into the shed.”

From the time he was a little kid, all he wanted to do was drive trucks – but his father said he needed to get a trade first, so he became a boiler maker. “I started out building transport equipment like dollies, flat tops, tippers and that sort of stuff. Then I got my truck licence when I was 20.

“I started working for my uncle in Adelaide but when we lost a contract I decided I wanted to work my way up to the triples, so while I was still young I thought I’d try my luck in the west and started doing some side tipper work,” explained Atkins.

When he started with Recharge Petroleum, Atkins went straight into a depot management role in Port Hedland – one of nine depots now owned by Recharge, with facilities also located in Darwin, Katherine, Alice Springs, Kununurra, Derby, Broome, Newman and Karratha.

Atkins has been with the business for close to 12 years and was in that role for about a decade, before the road came calling again.

It operates on a set run between the Recharge Petroleum terminal in Darwin to the depot in Alice Springs. Image: Chris Atkins

A father of three, a daughter aged 11 and two sons aged seven and three, he relocated to Darwin for better schooling opportunities for the kids. “Schooling was a bit limited in Port Hedland so after the move I went straight into driving. I was still driving while managing the Port Hedland depot but there were a lot of phone calls and other things to worry about. I wanted to get back into driving full time,” Atkins explained.

The quad set of trailers was delivered in October 2022, but delays with the truck and permits meant it wasn’t properly put to work until May 2023; so when Atkins got the keys, it had only done 30,000 kilometres.

“I picked up the truck new from Perth and got into it just after Easter,” he said.

Recharge Petroleum is a family owned and operated business, started by Steven and Nicole Crawford in 2007. Today it runs a fleet of about 65 trucks and over 200 tankers, which operate predominantly as triples and quads.

Steven says that Atkins was the perfect driver to entrust with the new set-up. “We knew he was a good, steady operator and is very switched on. This is one of those road train set-ups you wouldn’t just throw anyone into.”

The combination can travel at up to 90km/h when loaded and 100km/h when empty.

The combination can travel at up to 90km/h when loaded and 100km/h when empty. Image: Recharge Petroleum

Recharge Petroleum started in the Pilbara before expanding into the Northern Territory – and that’s what inspired this quad set-up. “Obviously super and ultra quads have been operating in the Pilbara for a reasonable amount of time. So we approached Tieman about doing something like that for here,” Steven said.

“It was a lengthy process – the application took over 12 months to be approved. It was a compromise like everything in life is – we were trying to get it to the 60 metres like the quad tippers in the Pilbara but we got it to 56.5 metres – it was a cautious approach.”

From a payload perspective, Steven says the combination has delivered what he had hoped for. “But part of the reason for trying to go with the extra length is to try and improve the stability a bit more.”

Though Steven added that going with something that hadn’t been done before was a risk. He said, “It was a calculated risk. We spent the money on this quad set with it only getting a 12-month trial permit. Thankfully, that’s now been increased by another 12 months. We’re still working with Tieman to try and get a second set, this time at 60 metres.”

In terms of handling, Atkins says there is a noticeable difference between this set and the other quads in the fleet. “Towing wise, road time and speed are a lot different between the normal quads and this one,” he said. “But the super quad can get into anywhere a normal triple can because of the way it tracks.”

One of the biggest differences with this set-up is that it doesn’t get uncoupled. The set always stays together as a quad configuration.

As Peter Spalding, a veteran quad road train driver who works for Recharge Petroleum, explained, “That set is the only one like it. Two people are required to unhook it because the draw bar is completely different to the other quads. The jaws are air operated, so you can’t just drop a trailer.”

Now semi retired, Spalding says he’s quite happy to stick with the fleet’s regular quad road trains. “I haven’t driven that one and I don’t want to drive it. With the normal tri drive quads we gross out at about 160 tonne.

“Chris is a perfectionist. He spent many a trip weighing it, making sure he could get the correct literage on each part of the vehicle to keep it settled. He’s a pretty smooth operator.”

And for Atkins, driving the quads isn’t something he plans on giving up any time soon. When asked what he enjoys most about the work, he said, “Being out and about and in control of what’s going on, and seeing different people and going different places. I want to keep doing this sort of work at least until I’m 50.”

The PBS quad set-up also gets plenty of attention out on the road. Atkins added, “I see so many tourists and other people driving past with their heads out the window taking video as I drive past!”

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