EDMONTON, Alta. - A recent load hauled from Edmonton to Fort McMurray, Alta. turned a lot of heads - and for good reason. It was the largest and heaviest load ever hauled between the two Alberta cities.
Premay Equipment is the heavy-haul division of Mullen Transportation and Duncan Cook is the company's vice-president of operations. He spent more than two years planning the move of a "coker" vessel from Dacro Industries in Edmonton to the Suncor oil sands project in Fort McMurray. It's only a 440-kilometre drive on the main highway, but it wasn't quite so simple with a gross weight of 850 tonnes in tow!
The first of two coker vessels took 12 cold January days to deliver along secondary highways such as the 14, the 36 and the 28, with the final leg being Hwy. 63 into Fort McMurray. That included three days of sitting out extremely cold weather (-45 C with the wind chill) which made it simply too cold for the wire-lifting crews to lend their assistance.
A coker vessel is a large, cylindrical piece of equipment that separates the various crude products that are extracted from the oily mud of the oil sands.
The coker vessels themselves were 37 ft., 8 in. high and 34 ft. wide. The load measured 290 ft. in length from the front tractor to the back of the rear trailer. The vessel rode on two hydraulic platform trailers with a total of 352 wheels under them.
Developing the transportation configuration was the biggest challenge, said Cook.
"The planning involved working originally with Suncor and their engineering company to develop a transport configuration to haul the coker vessels to the Suncor plant site," he explained.
Although Premay delivered four similar coker vessels to the Suncor Millennium Project in 2000, the new ones are considerably larger.
"To be able to move them, we had to come up with a different transport concept than the previous move in 2000," said Cook. Premay itself engineered the transport configuration and UMA Engineering in Edmonton double-checked it to ensure it would allow the load to safely cross all bridges en route.
"A lot of work is put into the planning of that design phase," said Cook. "We have to come up with the concept, design it and engineer it. For these types of moves the critical point is getting across the bridge structures with the weight distributed in such a manner you don't damage the bridges."
Seven Kenworths were assigned the task of delivering the load - four of them were tri-drives and the other three were tandems. They were all company-owned units with similar spec's including planetary drive rear-ends, Allison automatic transmissions and Cat powerplants under the hood.
At most times, four tractors would push the load with one to three units pulling from the front. The tractors were counterweighted for increased traction and each was linked via radio.
"There is constant communication with the lead tractor unit," said Cook.
"The lead tractor driver basically calls the shots as to when he needs the guys at the rear to push and when he wants to back out. The beauty of moving with multiple tractor units is that all the tractors are spec'd the same so you don't have one unit running at 2,000 RPM and another guy running at 1,500. They are synchronized in that regard."
Each of the drivers selected for the job has heavy-hauling experience and they all relished the opportunity to take on this challenging haul, said Cook.
"All our drivers are well-trained and very capable individuals. We have a good, stable workforce and people come to Premay because they want the challenge of moving these big loads," he said.
A number of pilot trucks took part in the move as well as a contingent of RCMP escorts.
The power company was also required to lift some of the 100 or so power lines that crossed over the route.
"Some of them were high enough we could just drive under, some were de-energized and some of them were de-energized and then lifted," said Cook.
Regular motorists that encountered the massive load were patient and courteous, Cook said, with many curious onlookers going out of their way to catch a glimpse of the unusual sight. Suncor posted regular updates on its Web site so those drivers who were in a hurry could alter their travel plans to avoid coming across the coker vessel.
The convoy had to leave Edmonton and enter Fort McMurray at nighttime to avoid peak traffic volumes, but the rest of the driving took place during the day. After delivering the first coker vessel without incident, Premay had little downtime before reloading and doing it all again.
Hauling 850 tonnes may seem like an impossible task, but at Premay, it's all in a day's work.