Introducing the Mercedes-Benz Actros 2653 into its fleet has shifted expectations for linehaul specialist ABS Transport. Not only has the European truck helped to facilitate major gains in fuel efficiency, it’s been instrumental in shaping a new mindset.
Fuel remains the lifeblood of most transport operations. After the truck itself, diesel fuel is often the second biggest expense a fleet manager must factor into an annual budget where the necessity to find a competitive edge is perhaps only outweighed by constant pressures to reduce operational costs.
Melbourne-based ABS Transport knows all too well the cumulative strain of sprinting road trains into battering crosswinds over the plateau of the Eastern seaboard as far as Brisbane and back daily – for the best part of four decades. In any given week one of its drivers could have easily exited a checkpoint in Guatemala, made it to California and returned to illustrate a comparative intercontinental distance. Of the 70 trailers the business currently operates nearly 70 per cent are open trailers to allow easy crane access. The remainder are Tautliners. A mixed fleet of 46 trucks includes 12 linehaul contractors and a handful of tow operators for when ABS Transport needs its 90 tonne rated road trains headed to Perth or Darwin uncoupled, a more or less negligible revenue stream from days gone by.
Terry Warn, ABS Transport Director, started out in 1975 with a truck he had restored while working as a diesel apprentice at Patterson Cheney in Dandenong. It became his very first vehicle.
In the beginning the trips were subcontracting interstate only as far as regional Victoria, much of it involving flat top trailer.
“It gradually went on from there. I was sub-contracting for a couple of major companies and that lasted for about five years. Then I met my wife.”
That would be Celeste Warn who he wed in 1980, putting a termination albeit temporarily, to his initial flirtation with truck driving. Another stint followed working on-site repairs for four years, which included restoring trucks and selling them. In 1985 Terry returned to road transport and secured his first interstate jobs, the crest of a wave he recalls, which he rode carting general goods now with a young family who he can’t know, at the time, will all play instrumental roles in the fledgling business he is fast building.
By 1989, with life partner Celeste also now a business partner, he needed more than two hands to count his growing commercial vehicle fleet.
“I was lucky enough to quote on a couple of interstate jobs and we went out in the market with what was, by most standards, a pretty hard-sell. Word of mouth soon spread. As a result we attracted some sizeable jobs with the likes of Pioneer Asphalt and it started to flourish from that point on.”
Both Terry’s sons Aaron and Shannon work full time with the business. Daughter Bianca is part time. Their first names make up the company’s name. The sons, who have long since earned their stripes in linehaul, now work in operations.
ABS Transport carts most everything from general freight to building products, with aluminium and glass representative of its nominal operations in which a B-double will get dispatched daily from one of its four depots.
Terry says there has been a noticeable demand this year for shipping manufacturing equipment like presses and cutting tools such as industrial guillotines. He attributes the increase in volume to the upsurge in building across the country, an event unlike anything he’s seen since the Global Financial Crisis hit.
“It’s amazed me somewhat considering there’s been so much doom and gloom associated with local manufacturing,” he says. “At the end of the day we’ll do wideloads, dangerous goods ¬ whatever is going.”
The next seismic shift in the business eventuated when Daimler approached ABS Transport with test model trucks back in 2014. Until then Terry had been running another prominent European truck and American rigs for the more extreme long haul assignments. After three months trialling a new Mercedes-Benz Actros 2658, Terry says he was suitably impressed by the 16-litre capabilities it offered.
“Driver acceptance was really amazing. There’s no other way to say it, the 2658s were excellent on fuel. But as the majority of our work is standard linehaul we found the 13-litre provided us with additional benefits and it has paid off. They are not just good on fuel, they are awesome.”
According to Terry, ABS Transport was offered one of the first Actros 2653 to be sold in Australia. It got his attention.
“The package was impressive and the big selling point for my business was the two-year conditional warranty and four year driveline. It took the pressure off given they were not only servicing the truck, but also offering an 80,000 kilometre service interval. The 30,000 kilometre service we were getting previous on our older trucks didn’t cut it.”
Two years later, the Actros 2653 was still firing on all cylinders. Terry had been running a series of ongoing evaluations involving different transport routes, trailer applications and the sums, as he calls them, added up. By early 2017 he had acquired five more 2653s. At this point it was decided the 13-litre truck was best suited to daily operations. The following summer Terry had pulled the trigger on some of the fleet’s older American trucks trading them in for three additional Actros vehicles from Mercedes-Benz. ABS Transport now runs nine in total.
The efficient combustion function of the engine among other features of the driveline were showing major advantages in an area for which Terry devoted much of his spare time trying to see improvements: fuel consumption.
Part of his comparison testing involved bringing the trucks running to Darwin with an EGR 80 Cummins onto the Eastcoast linehaul where the Actros 2653s were now dominating his roster.
“The difference between the two was significant. It was up around $1600 a month in fuel per truck,” Terry says. “Coupled with a 30,000 kilometre
service interval when compared to the 80,000 kilometres, which Daimler were paying for anyway and we were talking $1800 per truck which is great value I reckon. That was hard to argue with and the reason we bought them.”
According to Terry, Daimler Truck & Bus Australia has backed up his business well above expectations. Knowing they can provide a loan truck should one of his own vehicles be out of action for more than two days is just one of the numerous benefits he associates with the partnership.
The ongoing studies in fuel economy he runs internally have been assessed over months at a time to ascertain which trucks in B-double and road trains achieve pronounced fuel efficiencies according to Terry. ABS Transport, as he explains it, specialises in light extendable work. Much of it is one-way purposed whereby a job might take a driver to the middle-of-nowhere. The run back is usually empty and the Actros 2653 excels. Trips between Melbourne and Sydney were calculated with only half an hour difference in duration between the 16-litre and 13-litre engines.
“They were kicking arse when they were pulling a single with hardly any weight and they were registering similar times as if they were driving a truck with the bigger horsepower,” he says.
“On the standard linehaul jobs the American trucks were getting 1.5 to 1.6 kilometres per litre towing a B-double depending on the run itself. We might see anything from 1.9 to 2.3 kilometres per litre on the 13-litre Actros. The other European truck we were running got 1.9 at best.”
The mileage and fuel is calculated between fuel cards and sheets. Terry admits to analysing the fuel burn on the Actros constantly. All of his drivers, who have completed the driver training, are linked to updates on the fuel efficiency inside the cab. He says he gives them incentives with bonuses every now and then. Should a driver notice a decrease in fuel efficiency they are expected to inform the boss. Some of his drivers have been with the company for 26 years.
Like some other fleets, ABS Transport trialled dropping the maximum speeds across his group down to 90 km/h. But on the Sydney to Brisbane run it proved difficult to enforce with other drivers voicing their displeasure and cutting them off.
“Our drivers felt it wasn’t the right thing to do so I pumped it back up to 100 km/h,” Terry says. “Half of my drivers don’t exceed 95 anyway. You don’t want your drivers feeling toey on certain runs. We tried it but it didn’t work for us.”
In terms of the safety package he is impressed with the Brake Assist and Lane Change, which he believes is the best thing to happen to commercial vehicles.
“That lane change will definitely stop a truck as it drifts and put an end to incidents where there could have been a bad stack. In my early days I had a couple of accidents that definitely would not have occurred if I had use of Lane Keeping.”
The Eco-Roll, according to Terry, has proven itself as a feature delivering fuel saving advantages when the accelerator is released and the truck automatically defaults to neutral.
“I took an Actros 2653 out to Coober Pedy and on those long up and down runs when you pull the accelerator you cruise on three kilometres of straight road in neutral,” he recalls. “It doesn’t take you long to work out that’s going to save you fuel. The other thing to remember is if you’ve got your engine brake flicked in and as soon as you get 100 km/h it’ll just put it back into gear and pull you up anyway. EcoRoll is really amazing.”
Given the demands of his business, Terry says his phone is on 24/7. All breakdowns come to him, no matter the time of day. He explains he has received less calls since adopting the Mercedes-Benz trucks in his fleet.
“It’s gone from where I’d get maybe one or two phone calls every night and I’m lucky to get one a week now because there’s a trailer problem or what have you,” he says. “The 2653s seem so reliable it’s really incredible. They now probably have two and half million kilometres on them and between them I can count on my finger the amount of times I’ve had an issue. It’s given me my sanity back.”
Maintaining good mental health, ultimately, is as crucial to maintaining a quarter of a million dollars in a new vehicle. Surrounding himself with good people also helps. Terry says it’s a privilege of his to have everyone in his family involved in the business.
“You’re only as good as the staff you have working with you,” he says. “I’ve got a few good people on board and it’s great to work alongside my kids. Probably the best of all, and it might not always work for most people, but my partnership with my wife has been tremendous. If it wasn’t for her we wouldn’t be where we are either.”