Getting a freight

Getting a freight

Long-distance line hauling is the economic lifeline of Africa, transporting goods across the continent. However, it holds challenges for both man and machine. JACO DE KLERK takes a look some of these perils

Long-distance or line hauling drivers face numerous challenges on a daily basis, from border delays and a lack of safety on the roads to crime and less-than-ideal road conditions. It’s no surprise that a recent American study listed long haul truck driving as one of the top 10 most dangerous professions.

As stated on New Jersey Spine and Rehabilitation’s (NJSR) website, this profession is commonly associated with many degenerative health issues, which not only makes for a dangerous profession but a hazardous lifestyle as well – with one issue being back injuries that line-hauling drivers often sustain for a number of reasons.

These drivers are sometimes required to do a lot of heavy lifting, which puts tremendous strain on the lower back and can cause vertebrae to shift or slide. This can cause disc bulges, herniations, nerve impingements or spondylolisthesis (when vertebrae slip forward and distort the spinal cord).

But heavy lifting isn’t the only risk that can cause back injuries to drivers. The task of driving for hours on end takes a tremendous toll on the body. NJSR states that even though truck manufacturers have made significant advancements in comfort for drivers, little can be done to remedy the natural forces of physics while driving.

The organisation explains that when a truck isn’t moving, the driver’s body is in a similar position to sitting in a standard padded chair, but things change once the wheels start rolling. The body is then subjected to different forces such as acceleration and deceleration, lateral swaying (from side to side), and vibrations.

Drivers also actively use their feet when driving, which inhibits their ability to support and stabilise the lower body as would normally happen when seated in a stationary position. This constant instability promotes tension and torque on the spine and the muscles surrounding it.

According to NJSR, unpaved or poorly maintained roads worsen this since, as drivers are jostled around in their seats, they are subjected to repetitive concussions.

And poor road conditions don’t only have an impact on drivers, but also on the vehicles and equipment they steer. According to Jo Du Toit, managing director of SAF-Holland South Africa, the impact that unmaintained roads have on trailers is utterly disastrous. “All you have to do is go off the national routes onto some of the back roads, and you will see,” he says.

Du Toit highlights the poor conditions of the R50 from Leandra in Mpumalanga to the N17 – with the former being a regional route that connects Pretoria with Standerton via Delmas and the latter a national road that links Johannesburg to Swaziland. He also expressed concern about the road leading from Standerton in Mpumalanga to the KwaZulu-Natal-based Eskom Majuba Power Station. “The list is endless,” says Du Toit. “Even when you exclude any routes outside South Africa.”

Johan Enslin, co-founder and director of Homez, a South African manufacturer of trailers, trailer services and provider of trailer parts, agrees. “Highways are in an acceptable condition, unlike sub-roads that weren’t originally designed to carry heavy loads and huge amounts of traffic,” he explains. “And railroad transportation has almost completely collapsed, escalating long-distance road transport severely.”

He adds that different applications can also affect the life of a trailer. “In agricultural transport, some roads aren’t even developed, with the distances needing to be covered to get to main roads occasionally being very far.

“And on mining sites, the roads are sometimes maintained but sometimes non-existent,” he says, indicating that operating conditions may even vary within a specific industry.

Du Toit emphasises that the applications trailers are used for can affect both the unit and the lifecycle of its components, with suspension being one of the major bugbears. “For long-distance hauling within South Africa’s borders on road applications, air suspension is the better choice,” he says. “It is lighter, which means more payload, and works well with the new electronic braking systems (EBS).”

However, as Du Toit points out, mechanical suspension makes more sense for long haul operations that go up to the Democratic Republic of Congo or further. “It’s stronger, less complex and these parts are available under just about any tree,” he jokes. “Naturally, it’s much heavier – unless you use the new SAF-Holland mechanical suspension, which is 75 kilograms lighter than its competitors; no bias shown here,” he adds, tongue in cheek.

On a more sombre note, he says there are some road applications that mechanical suspension is better suited to. “Some tanker operators still prefer mechanical suspension because, as they say, air suspension can crack the chassis or tanker. But again, it’s all application-related.”

According to Enslin, mechanical suspensions are preferred by most African transporters, again depending on the load that is to be carried. “With rising fuel costs, everyone is looking for a lighter trailer in order to improve fuel consumption and payload,” he says. “The more payload one can carry, the less trips need to be done – and with new technological advances, mechanical suspension can compete with the weight of air suspension.”

He says there is no difference between the manufacturing of trailers for either long or short distance hauling, and that these units are “generically” built for both applications. This is beneficial for operators because contracts can change from time to time. “The components are generally the same, apart from when a trailer is specifically designed for off-road travelling. Here, special care is taken on the design and strength of the unit.”

Du Toit points out that there are standards and laws governing the manufacture of trailers. These include the SABS and the National Road Traffic Act, which governs all foreign trailers that enter South Africa’s borders to ensure that these units comply with specific safety standards.

Du Toit says SAF-Holland SA is finding a lot of trailers equipped with UK components coming into the local market from various destinations across Africa. “These trailers – including, scarily enough, fuel tankers – have been built for European on-road conditions and are now expected to operate and survive in an African off-road environment,” he says. “This definitely can’t have a happy ending.”

Enslin adds that strict regulations will soon be enforced on all South African road users, local and international alike, putting one’s mind somewhat at ease regarding these “dumped” units. He also states that developments and improvements within the transport industry are never ending.

As Du Toit says: “Technology is the main factor; we’re seeing a change to disc brakes on trailers, ultra low tare weights, some really innovative designs and galloping technology on truck-tractors.”

However, he says the steady flow, or rather the torrent, of substandard parts coming in from the east scares him immensely. “Fifty-six tonnes travelling at 100 km/h down routes like Van Reenen’s Pass with dodgy brake valves, drums and linings should scare everyone.”

It’s clear that long-distance line hauling is faced with challenges and can take a toll on drivers and equipment alike. Continued technological advancements and the dedication of responsible manufacturers and operators are needed if this economic lifeline is to help Africa soar to new heights.

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