A GAME OF GEARS

In a heavy-haulage ap­pli­ca­tion where the stakes are so high and the price for fail­ure can be dis­as­trous, Volvo FHs fit­ted with crawler gears are ex­ceed­ing ex­pec­ta­tions with a gear for ev­ery oc­ca­sion

Australian Transport News - - TRUCK REVIEWS -

Un­der the glare of work lights, a del­i­cate me­chan­i­cal dance is tak­ing place. Fig­ures clad in high-vis cloth­ing throw stark elon­gated shad­ows as they wres­tle with chains, hooks and straps. Work boots kick up dust as the fig­ures move with in­tent across the site.

In the shad­ows, mas­sive Lieb­herr cranes idle, a con­stant hum against the clank of steel against steel and the high-pitched whine of an­gle grinders as they spray sparks into the night. The inky black Clarence River in north­ern New South Wales rip­ples be­low un­seen as work­ers toil on the new 1.5-kilometre, four-lane bridge un­der con­struc­tion about 20 me­tres east of the ex­ist­ing cross­ing – part of the $4.36 bil­lion Wool­go­olga-to-Bal­lina Pa­cific High­way up­grade jointly funded by the Aus­tralian and NSW gov­ern­ments.

The old box-girder Har­wood Bridge still groans and rum­bles as trucks tackle the mid­night run down the Pa­cific High­way.

The bustling crane crew know their job; aside from the in­evitable ban­ter be­tween col­leagues, there’s lit­tle in the way of loud in­struc­tions. Two-way ra­dios crackle, dog­men sig­nal and the idling cranes roar into life.

This is a pro­fes­sional team work­ing in uni­son. Sud­denly, a mas­sive 170-tonne concrete bridge span rises into the dark­ness; an­other beam is put in place and the in­dus­trial dance con­tin­ues through the night. On the edge of dark­ness, an­other cast mem­ber cranks to life, head­lights flick on and am­ber safety bea­cons be­gin to pulse, in­vad­ing the shad­ows. It looks just like any other Volvo FH16 prime mover, save maybe for some eye-catch­ing paint work.

How­ever, this is no or­di­nary high­way truck; it has a se­cret weapon hidden away un­der its sil­ver cab. This FH16 700 is equipped with crawler gears and is rated to haul loads of 240 tonnes gross.

Heavy haulage is de­mand­ing and un­for­giv­ing work. To­tal con­trol, both of the ve­hi­cle and the sur­round­ing en­vi­ron­ment, is a must. An er­ror can re­sult in mas­sive dam­age to life, limb and in­fra­struc­ture.

Tra­di­tion­ally, heavy haulage trucks have been a cus­tomised cre­ation. Aux­il­iary trans­mis­sions and mul­ti­ple drive axles are usu­ally the norm. Al­tered wheel bases and other changes of­ten make the truck fit for one pur­pose only; haul­ing loads that would break the av­er­age ve­hi­cle. Com­pared to the mod­i­fied heavy haulage beasts of the past, the Volvo looks unas­sum­ing. Looks, how­ever, can be de­ceiv­ing.

Un­der cover of dark­ness, two ul­tra-low crawler gear (ULCG) equipped FH16 Volvos have been trans­port­ing 170-tonne concrete bridge beams to site. The en­tire com­bi­na­tion tips the scales at 300 tonnes.

The two 10-axle trail­ers alone sit on 80 tyres col­lec­tively and weigh close to 50 tonnes each.

The front trailer is pulled by one Volvo, the rear trailer is pushed by the other, and be­tween them sits the mas­sive concrete bridge span.

A com­bined to­tal of up to 1,400hp and 6,300Nm of torque is be­ing mul­ti­plied in the trans­mis­sion and is fed to the drive wheels of the two trucks. Up to a mas­sive 700,000Nm is turn­ing the tyres of the FH16s.

It’s an op­er­a­tion that re­quires both a skilled team and me­chan­i­cal pre­ci­sion.

Watch­ing the two-truck com­bi­na­tion start to roll on its next load is an im­pres­sive sight.

In­ter­est­ingly, there are no roar­ing en­gines or slip­ping tyres; there are no spec­tac­u­lar wheel stands as the trucks shoul­der the bur­den.

In­stead, the sight is spec­tac­u­lar be­cause of the ease at which the load starts rolling.

With prac­tised non­cha­lance, the trucks idle away from a standstill in crawler mode. With a more mod­est load, the I-shift au­to­mated trans­mis­sion in each prime mover could con­tinue to shift up through the gears with­out need­ing to stop. With a load of this mag­ni­tude, how­ever, slowly but surely is the name of the game. The fastest these trucks will get up to is 10km/h.

De­spite the in­cred­i­ble forces at work, both Volvos gen­tly ac­cel­er­ate.

To help ne­go­ti­ate the twists and turns of the route to the bridge con­struc­tion site, a steer man sits in a cock­pit on the rear trailer, ma­nip­u­lat­ing the an­gle of the com­bi­na­tion as it snakes to­wards the main high­way.

Thank­fully for ev­ery­one in­volved, the steer man es­pe­cially, this shift isn’t a long one, about two kilo­me­tres in to­tal. That said, the main high­way still has to be closed to traf­fic while the mon­ster load crawls across the old Har­wood Bridge and around an­other cor­ner where the cranes await to un­load. The 16-litre en­gine emits a sub­dued yet throaty growl as it climbs across the river. Yet, still, the trucks re­tain their com­po­sure.

Amongst the hard­ened veter­ans of Aus­tralian heavy haulage, tales abound of both mis­ad­ven­ture and chal­lenges met; sto­ries of drive wheels ro­tat­ing in­side their tyres as the load strug­gles to move; sto­ries of asphalt be­ing ripped from the road sur­face as a loaded com­bi­na­tion strains to the top of a grade. Tonight, how­ever, the driv­ers of these trucks, with decades of ex­pe­ri­ence be­tween them, know the value of a del­i­cately placed right foot and no small de­gree of me­chan­i­cal sym­pa­thy.

Ian ‘Robbo’ Robert­son drives the lead FH16 and is no stranger to haul­ing heavy loads. In fact, he has been in heavy haulage for more than 25 years.

“It’s cer­tainly got the goods,” he says, ges­tur­ing at the sil­ver FH over his shoul­der. “Over the years,

“Hav­ing all the gears in the one gear­box means that you don’t have to stop and change from high to low or low to high.”

I’ve driven many heavy trucks, and the op­por­tu­nity came up to drive this Volvo,” he muses. “It’s so com­fort­able, but it’s re­ally got the power to do the job.”

Robert­son is clearly at ease amongst the tow­er­ing cranes and strad­dle car­ri­ers.

This is his of­fice. He smiles with his en­tire face, show­ing an ami­able char­ac­ter that has no doubt served him well over years of work­ing as a part of a team, me­thod­i­cally plan­ning out ev­ery big move.

The pro­fes­sion­al­ism re­quired for these shifts is a given.

“The crawler gears in this Volvo are fan­tas­tic; most trucks like this would have a gear­box and a joey box,” he says.

“Hav­ing all the gears in the one gear­box means that you don’t have to stop and change from high to low or low to high, you can change on the fly from Crawler 1 or 2 and so on up into the main box.

“It just makes it so much eas­ier to do the job; the torque that’s there is phe­nom­e­nal.

“If you’re go­ing down the high­way, at a cou­ple of hun­dred tonnes, you need to know that it’s got the goods there.”

The in­no­va­tion within these trucks sounds de­cep­tively sim­ple; the ad­di­tion of two ex­tra gears at the front of the 12-speed I-shift trans­mis­sion. The low­est for­ward ra­tio of the ul­tra-low crawler is an al­most glacial 32.4:1. The fi­nal drive turns at 4.12:1.

This gives the Volvo in­cred­i­ble start-abil­ity un­der heavy load.

But it’s the abil­ity to main­tain mo­men­tum once rolling that re­ally sets the ULCG-equipped I-shift apart. Other trucks fit­ted with aux­il­iary gear­boxes of­ten have to come to a halt to change gears in the sec­ondary trans­mis­sion.

With ULCG, the truck can climb out of the crawler ra­tios while on the move. The dig­i­tal pre­ci­sion of the I-shift’s gear chang­ing abil­i­ties re­mains.

The op­tion of be­ing able to add crawler ra­tios to the I-shift trans­mis­sion adds to the ver­sa­til­ity of the FH16. Crawler gears even have their place in long-haul ap­pli­ca­tions.

For B-dou­ble work, it’s pos­si­ble to op­tion crawler gears with a taller ra­tio. This means the prime mover can also run a taller fi­nal drive. Ul­tra-low crawler gears may be about per­for­mance and pro­duc­tiv­ity, how­ever crawler gears in high­way ap­pli­ca­tions are all about fuel ef­fi­ciency.

Lo­cal test­ing of crawler gear-equipped FH16 Volvos in B-dou­ble ap­pli­ca­tions have seen dra­matic im­prove­ments in fuel ef­fi­ciency with­out com­pro­mis­ing low-speed per­for­mance. At high­way speeds, the en­gine revs at a point where the most is made of ev­ery drop of fuel.

As the mas­sive cranes sling yet an­other bridge girder into the dark­ness, the now un­laden FH16s roll back down the road for the next run.

Wait­ing strad­dle car­ri­ers have al­ready po­si­tioned a beam ready for load­ing.

The pre­ci­sion of the crane teams and the driv­ers is ap­pro­pri­ately enough echoed by the pre­ci­sion of the trucks them­selves.

These FH16s have not put a foot wrong dur­ing the whole op­er­a­tion. In fact, the driv­ers can’t speak highly enough of them.

The me­chan­i­cal bal­let con­tin­ues into the night un­til the first smudge of dawn marks the sky. For Robert­son and the team, it’s just an­other day at the of­fice.

In an ap­pli­ca­tion where the stakes are so high and the price for fail­ure can be dis­as­trous, these Volvos are ex­ceed­ing ex­pec­ta­tions with a gear for ev­ery oc­ca­sion.

“Ev­ery job comes with its chal­lenges, whether it’s on a mine site or down a dirt road at a cou­ple of hun­dred tonnes push-pull,” Robert­son reck­ons.

“It re­ally is a game of gears.”

“It’s a game of gears”

Above: Two Volvos, 700,000Nm, 300 tonnes ne­go­ti­at­ing the tight­est cor­ner of the trip

Be­low: End game! An­other bridge beam rises into the dark­ness

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