The Highlands Highway

IT’S the nation’s most important transport artery and is about to get a lot more important. PNG Report hitched a ride with the industry that all the others rely on. By Mike Butler
The Highlands Highway The Highlands Highway The Highlands Highway The Highlands Highway The Highlands Highway

Published in the February 2012 PNG Report magazine

Think you've got a tough day at the office? Try the constant threat of armed hold-up, roadkill that can end up getting you killed and teeth-jangling road conditions as your constant companion.

That's the norm for truck drivers on the Highlands Highway.

As PNG's major transport artery, this road delivers more supplies to more mineral projects, timber exports and coffee plantations than any other in the country. And it's about to get economically even more important, with the construction phase of the behemoth PNG LNG project in the Southern Highlands relying on it. It's estimated traffic will almost double in the next two years to accommodate PNG LNG.

Problem is, the highway is barely able to handle what's already on it, according to transport leaders.

PNG Road Transport Association president Jacob Luke says its been been neglected for years, resulting in knock-on costs for the provinces and industries it feeds.

"The condition of the road is getting worse, as well as the security of assets and law and order. The lives of drivers are always at risk," he says.

Now, as part of a three-year strategy, the industry is campaigning to improve the highway as a major economic priority for the country.

In many ways this 800km strip hardly deserves its highway tag. Often only a single carriageway, it jags and climbs up from Lae to Mt Hagen before forking out to Porgera gold mine in Enga and PNG LNG in the Southern Highlands as well as supplying three million people along the way.

It's a devil of a road in God's garden requiring, if you're lucky, four days for a return trip. The highest pass is a dizzying 3000m, 24 degree inclines and declines on gravel are common and most bridges are four metre wide 16-tonne steel trusses that you'd be lucky to find on C-roads in more developed countries.

None of it has road safety reflectors and while some of it is sealed, most of that is so badly potholed that when a fleet of air bag suspension trucks was attempted every bag had been either torn in half or wrecked their brackets within four months.

"The potholes are that big they destroy the bags," says Daryl Diehl, chief maintenance engineer at IPI Mountain Transport, the largest fuel haulage company in the country.

"You could put these drivers to work in countries like Australia and the US and they'd think it was a dream. It's a pretty rough ride out there."

Luke told the PNG Report:"The government needs to allocate maybe $A2 billion to ensure a good road is reconstructed to last. This will eliminate security issues, timely deliveries and less maintenance."

Around 500 prime movers currently ply this road, contributing to 40,000 loaded truck movements per annum. Eight major transport companies operate most of these and all the companies that the PNG Report spoke to have orders placed to substantially increase their fleets.

Although the PNG LNG project is about to stir up the market, Melbourne-built Kenworths are currently the brand of choice, with a few Western Stars, Internationals and Hinos thrown in.

The Kenworths began their dominance in the early 1990s, says Luke, who as well as leading the industry body is owner of Mapai Transport which operates 74 trucks out of Mt Hagen and Lae.

"It's a simplified truck that can be built to our own specifications to take the conditions of the roads up here."

They're quite different from Kenworths on Australian and US roads. Built more like cage fighters than prime movers, they're substantially heavier and more reinforced because making it back in one piece is more of a priority than weight.

Because of the threat of holdup and driver attack, windscreens are laminated and all glass surfaces have steel grills welded on. Cabs are cut down to the bare minimum because most instruments can't handle the shaking. And big, heavy spring suspension systems are standard. Diehl says: "Our trucks weigh between 48-49t while a comparable one in Australia is 45t mainly because of that."

Hold-ups, breakdowns and payouts

Road conditions are only part of the battle for companies. Running the gauntlet of hold-ups, road blocks, tribal wars, hijackings and looting make this PNG's most exposed industry.

"Fuel theft is a huge problem and a constant battle," says Bill Clift, Mt Hagen manager of IPI Mountain Transport - which, the week PNG Report visited, had signed a contract to supply 25 million litres of diesel to PNG LNG.

"Once we plug up one scam, [the locals] find another," Clift says.

Although access bolts are welded shut and every fuel line is tagged and sealed each trip, IPI's 70-truck fleet still loses hundreds of thousands of litres every year to highjackings and theft. Driver theft alone from IPI Mountain Transport's fleets accounts to 50,000 litres per annum.

And pity a vehicle that breaks down because, armed with only buckets and jerry cans, villagers can "drain a 40,000l tanker in less than a hour," says Clift. Luke agrees. "The greatest enemy is our own people that hold up trucks to loot cargo from the trucks," he says.

For container freight firm East West Transport, it's a constant worry, manager Gilbert Delaney says as he shows PNG Report around its freight compound with containers that looters have opened up like tin cans.

"They use axes to open them up - all we can do is weld them up and send them out again," he says, displaying photos of the company's latest incident, which happened the week before in the Southern Highlands. As the truck slowed around a bend its air hoses were macheted and its tyres slashed, immobilising it and allowing scores of people at the containers.

"This happened all within 300m of a police station, and they were nowhere to be seen. It's become a cultural thing that if a vehicle stops, villagers think it's their right to loot it, demand 1000 kina ($A457) for the return of the truck and the police do nothing."

On this occasion, instead of paying, the driver drove off on flat tyres - wearing them down to the rims before stopping 15km down the road.

"It's totally lawless," Delaney says.

The road ahead

With the PNG LNG project going into operation by 2014, trucking on the Highlands Highway is gearing up for the biggest expansion in its history.

Diehl estimates that another 500 trucks and drivers will be needed over the construction phase of this $US15.7 billion project, supplying every thing from fuel to materials and food for workers.

IPI Group CEO Scott O'Reilly says his company has ordered ten 8x8 Mercedes tankers specifically for the LNG project. He says the LNG project is challenging Kenworth's dominance here, as at K900,000 ($411,500) each, the Kenworths are expensive and it's forcing companies to look at alternatives. What will happen when the trucks are not needed after construction is completed in 2015 is another story.

"The lack of drivers is also a real issue," O'Reilly says. "Within six months we'll be needing another 20, which is difficult because of the two to three year training time lag," he says. To fill the skills gap companies are now looking to places like the Philippines.

"It's a totally different type of driving here," O'Reilly says. "Even the driving trainers from Australia want to teach our guys highway driving and give them lessons on skidpans. It's so removed from our conditions that it's nearly useless."

Luke says that in November last year the national government, recognising the economic importance of the highway, assured the industry it would protect the corridors of the highway. He is now campaigning for those promises to become a reality.

"Because, ultimately the development of the industry is up to us," he says.

Almost to prove to point, Luke himself recently drove a monster 40m trailer from Lae to the LNG fields in what is easily the biggest rig the highway has ever seen. "Nine axles, 72 wheels, a 66-tonne capacity and we did it," he says with a pleased smile. To do it he needed a 45-man crew with cranes, bobcats and a workshop, but he proved that the PNG trucking industry is doing its bit to meet the transport challenge ahead.

PNG test drive: what happened when the PNG Report hitched a ride

We jumped into an IPI Mountain Transport tanker at Porgera gold mine after driver Jeffrey Wailen had delivered a 36,000l diesel load for the mine's massive dump trucks. Despite having one of his tanker's five compartments filled with water to weigh the truck down, we bounced around that cab like popping corn.

At one point we snuck (if you can call a 36-wheeler sneaky) through a tribal fighting zone that saw two men killed that day. The road had been blockaded two days before.

At another, an eagle surreally dropped onto our bonnet, presumably from an overhanging branch. But Wailen handled it all with aplomb just as he did with everything from negotiating blind and unmarked corners to threading over narrow bridges and avoiding errant villagers and pigs.

At another point we hit 120km/h but overwhelmingly it was a slow hard crawl around doglegs and into pot holes the size of jacuzzis. After 2.5 hours on what he called the "easy part" and travelling a measly 51km, we couldn't face another four hours to Mt Hagen and shamefully jumped ship at Wabag.

Wailen's pay for a 16-hour round trip? 275K (around $A126). He deserves a medal.

Average truck

Modified Kenworth with Cummins engine

Average speed

20km/h over a 1600km round trip

Average truck lifespan

10 years

Average driver

PNG national(protected industry)

Average truck load

25 tonnes

Average tanker load

36,000 litres

Fuel consumption

1 litre/km

Biggest companies

Trans Wonderland Ltd, IPI Mountain Transport, Mapai,East West, Traisa Transport

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