Over the past 30 years road trains bearing the acronym RTA have become as common a sight across the red dirt roads of northern Australia as Brahman cattle, big skies and billowing dust.
The current incarnation of Road Trains of Australia commenced in July 2006 when current managing director Dave Jones, who had been responsible for the growth of the Hampton Transport Services (HTS) cattle cartage business throughout northern Western Australia and the Northern Territory, sat down with then-RTA owner Jim Cooper, with the idea that one of them would have to buy the other out.
At that stage both companies were running fleets of similar sizes.
The merging of the two operations made economic sense as they travelled the same routes and generally both had one empty leg as they were in competition with each other.
Dave and his brother Bart then negotiated with their father Bart “Boss” Jones and their uncles, the directors of HTS, to buy the cattle operations of HTS and to put it into a company jointly owned by themselves and HTS.
The company traded as “Hampton RTA Pty Ltd” until Jim Cooper’s Road Trains of Australia Pty Ltd could change its name, thereby allowing Hampton RTA to be renamed Road Trains of Australia Pty Ltd.
Dave said that after a very short period of negotiation a deal was reached, and within a matter of weeks the new operation was up and running, and by then the cattle season was in full swing.
“It was interesting times trying to get the two unique cultures that were used to competing with each other to blend together,” Dave Jones explained. “By the end of that season things were moving in the right direction and a new culture was beginning to form.”
In 2007 RTA acquired Hansen Livestock Transport and its depots in Longreach and Quilpie.
RTA’s operations today cover the entire top half of Australia, with the company’s 73 prime movers averaging between 145,000 to 170,000km per year, much of which is travelled in clouds of bulldust on unsealed roads.
RTA has 212 trailers, all of which are operated as triple road trains, and a one-time uplift capacity using its own equipment of 418 decks. The prime movers are a mixture of Kenworth and Mack Titans.
It operates depots in Broome and Bullsbrook in Western Australia, Noonamah and Katherine in the Northern Territory and Mt Isa, Longreach and Quilpie in Queensland.
The company’s work ranges from delivering cattle to northern shipping ports for live export, carting cattle from the Northern Territory to growing out properties in the channel country for the major pastoral companies such as Australian Agricultural Company, Consolidated Pastoral Company and North Australia Pastoral Company (NAPco), and transporting large numbers of cattle from the Northern Territory and North Western Queensland into saleyards or feedlots in SE Qld. In such circumstances RTA will typically take cattle to the limit of where Type 2 road trains can travel at Mitchell, and then another livestock transporter will take the cattle the remaining distance.
Thirty years after RTA was originally founded by Noel Buntine (see Buntine Roadways’ story below), the name ‘Road Trains of Australia’ remains just as fitting as it was then.
“We don’t own a B-Double, only road trains,” says the company’s Queensland manager Mike Bailey from Mount Isa, reflecting the vast, long-haul nature of work in which the company specialises.
Mike Bailey is a well-known face of RTA in northern Australia, having recently clocked up 27 years with the company. Both of his grandfathers were transporters whose working lives spanned the transition from bullock wagons to road trains. The cattle carting business is well and truly in his blood.
“It is part of you, you live, eat, breath and sleep it,” he says. “Its like a disease, once it gets hold of you you’re gone.”
Mr Jones said RTA prides itself on old-fashioned family values, operated by people that understand the land and their client needs.
“All of the current managers have previously driven for the company prior to moving into management so have an intimate knowledge of the job.”
The history of the two companies that formed the current RTA:
Hampton Transport Services
Hampton Transport Services began life in 1977 on Hampton Hill Station, a sheep station owned by the Jones family near Kalgoorlie-Boulder in Western Australia.
Bart “Boss” Jones Snr co-founded Hampton Transport Services with his brothers during the tough drought year of 1977 to carry the family and their neighbour’s sheep to help the station survive.
The company’s first truck was a Scania 111 painted in the national colours of Sweden, matching the nationality of the prime-mover, a livery that is now well-known in the transport industry Australia wide.
The growth of the company was orchestrated by Boss and his two sons Bart (jnr) and Dave. Bart’s main interest was in developing the bulk haulage and mining side of the operations while Dave concentrated more on the livestock side.
In March 1991 HTS bought the operations of Broome based Butler Transport who had three trucks, which then gave them a base in the Kimberley. Dave moved to Broome to develop the business further. By 1995 a depot was established in Berrimah NT initially with 6 Kenworths.
In 1996 Steve (Brownie) Brown moved to Broome to run the Broome operations.
The continued growth of the business saw the NT operation move from Berrimah to Noonamah where it purchased a property that had a small accredited export yard along with room for the transport depot. This enabled Hamptons to be able to consolidate its client’s loads in the export yards and prepare the cattle for the export boats. Over the years the yards and the facilities have continued to be expanded.
In 2001 Hamptons acquired Groves Livestock Transport from Joey Groves.
The HTS cattle fleet continued to grow over the next few years until it was sold into the “new” Road Trains of Australia in 2006.
Boss Jones was an active Director of the company until his passing in 2006. In 2011 he was posthumously inducted into the National Road Transport Hall of Fame. His accompanying profile recognises the pioneering role he played in adopting new technology to improve the remote livestock transporting industry, from introducing two-way radios in his station vehicles and trucks in the late 70s to satellite phones and GPS tracking at the earliest opportunity.
Buntine Roadways/Road Trains of Australia
In many ways the story of Australia’s largest cattle transporting company is also the story of the development of the modern day northern Australian cattle industry itself.
Since the 1800s the potential of the vast natural grasslands of northern Australia to support a large-scale cattle industry was obvious.
While the droving industry helped to get the northern industry on its feet, the need for faster and more efficient road transport always held the key to unlocking the full potential of the north.
Central to the innovations that allowed that to happen was the invention by Alice Springs’ Kurt Johanssen of self-tracking trailers in 1945, which laid the platform for road trains to negotiate more of the bush roads throughout the north, and Commonwealth funding from 1949 onwards to improve northern roads to support the northern cattle industry.
When the first rudimentary road trains pulled by Commer Knockers, Diamond Ts and Fodens began venturing farther into the north, with breakdowns, boggings and crashes rarely far behind, the traditional drovers may well have felt they had little to fear from the new mechanical drovers, especially when it came to shifting thousands of head of cattle in a single lift.
However as the obstacles to successful road transport were gradually overcome with bush engineering skills, resourcefulness and old-fashioned grit and determination by the early road train pioneers such as Kurt Johanssen and Noel Buntine, it wasn’t long before road trains began to overtake droving as the most efficient and expedient way to deliver cattle to markets many miles away.
The history of the northern cattle industry is inextricably linked to that of RTA’s founder Noel Buntine, who first began carrying general freight, fuel and copper ore for the Co-Ord Transport Group around Alice Springs in the 1950s.
In 1956 Noel bought his first B61 Mack, which he named “The High and the Mighty”, the first of many round-nosed B-Model Macks and later R-series models that would provide the DNA for Buntine Roadways.
In the late 1950s, after carting supplies to Victoria River Downs (VRD) from Alice Springs via the famous Murranji Stock Route, Noel negotiated a contract with three Victoria River district stations including VRD to cart supplies for them from Wyndham, and to cart their cattle back to the Wyndham meatworks.
Kevin “Renegade” Renehan documented Noel Buntine’s pioneering foray into cattle transport in a short history which, until recently, was on display in the Queensland heavy transport museum at Gatton, alongside one of Buntine Roadways’ original Mack B61 body trucks:
“Noel had some cattle crates built for his trucks and trailers by East’s Engineering Works in Alice Springs late 1959. The crates were bolted on in March 1960, (with) Noel driving a six wheel Foden 26 foot body truck and one trailer, and Bill Bromhall driving the High and the Mighty Mack B61 semi pulling two trailers, and a knocker Commer and trailer, drove via the Murranji stock route through VRD to Timber Creek and onto Wyndham to start carting freight onto the stations before the meatworks opened. They then backloaded with cattle. They had a hectic time with rough dirt roads and very rough flooded river crossings, and plenty of work in that first year, which was completed without any holdups.
“At the end of that season once all the wet season supplies were carried out to the stations, they went back to Alice Springs to rebuild their trucks and trailers.”
In the following year Noel Buntine established Buntine Roadways.
The company effectively grew from strength to strength as Noel’s skill in transporting cattle by road grew in reputation, and as other developments helped to fuel increasing demand for road transport services across the north.
These included the continued opening of northern beef roads to trucks pulling double and triple trailers, which Noel Buntine’s active lobbying efforts helped to achieve; the opening of the Katherine Meatworks in 1963, and the Brucellosis and Tuberculosis Eradication Campaign (BTEC) from 1970 onwards which drove further demand for road transport over traditional droving.
Over the next 20 years Buntine Roadways grew to become the largest road train operator in the southern hemisphere.
In an interview with ABC television’s A Big Country program in the early 1970s Noel Buntine said the dedication of the company’s hard-working drivers, or the “road bosses” as he described them, were the backbone of the operation.
In 1981 Noel Buntine sold Buntine Roadways with 53 road trains and depots in Katherine, Alice Springs, Wyndham, Tennant Creek and Mount Isa to a NSW grain grower, Roly Dalziel.
However the business did not succeed under the change of ownership and within two years had been placed into receivership.
Noel Buntine bought the business back from the receivers and renamed it Road Trains of Australia (RTA).
Retaining the widely-recognised white and green colours of Buntine Roadways, Mr Buntine restarted the business with two trucks. A year later he bought 14 new Mack Superliners and new Haulmark trailers to start the 1984 cattle season, and within two years had returned the business to profitability.
In late 1985 Mr Buntine sold the business again, this time to D&W transport, owned in partnership by well-known northern identifies, NT fuel distributor Dick David and Ken Warriner of Consolidated Pastoral Company.
Over the next eight years under Mr David’s and Mr Warriner’s ownership RTA continued to grow, with acquisitions including John Bain Transport, Tanami Transport, Kloppers Transport, Barkly Transport, Baskets Transport and Victoria River Transport (which had been established by Noel’s son Denis Buntine).
In 1993 Jim Cooper of Gulf Transport Group and Mick Flynn of Flynn Petroleum joined forces to buy RTA from Dick David and Ken Warriner.
Mr Cooper, who bought out Mr Flynn’s share two years later, already owned substantial transport industry interests with Gulf Transport and Powertrans in the mining industry.
After selling the company to Hampton Transport Services in 2006, Mr Cooper paid tribute to the RTA culture: “People give a company its character and at RTA the camaraderie was terrific. We had a great team of people and walking away was tough,” he said in an interview for the Cummins Engines magazine in 2010.
In 1994, following Noel Buntine’s sudden death, the road connecting the Victoria River District to the Victoria Highway south west of Katherine was named the Buntine Highway in his honour, recognising his contribution to the northern cattle industry and the development of the beef roads.
PO Box 336
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DARWIN / KATHERINE
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