High-tech trucking in the far north

Trucking in the far north of Europe is more than just a job. Considered one of the world’s last wildernesses, life in the region is largely determined by the polar day phenomenon, where the sun doesn’t set for months on end, only to give way to a long and cold winter season where daylight is scarce.

Performing shift work like truck driving in such an environment is a tough task and can easily blur the line between night and day.

For Tuomas Seppi, maintaining a reasonable sleep-wake rhythm is even more of a challenge as he spends most of his time driving a concrete truck some 700 metres below the surface. But the bristly Finn is not too fussed about the constant darkness. “At first it was difficult, but now I’m used to it,” he says in the calm, earnest way that is typical for those at home in Europe’s far north.

Working in almost total darkness, Seppi’s job is providing the concrete needed to stabilise the tunnels stretching out below the ground. As he only has a medium-duty licence, the vehicle that made the mine famous is outside his reach, up on the surface, operated by a team of experienced drivers that hold a so-called BE/CE permit.

During the last polar night, Seppi’s employer, local businessman Samuli Suorso, added a special heavy-duty side tipper combination to the fleet that is used to transport the chromite ore from the mine to the Outokumpu ferrochrome plant in Tornio, a port located some 40km away from Kemi.

Pulled by a Mercedes-Benz Arocs rigid fitted with a side tipping body, the nine-axle combination is meant to take on the work previously handled via rail. According to the mining company, conventional rail transport has become too expensive, too cumbersome and too slow, paving the way for road transport to step in as a commercially viable alternative. Today, the Arocs unit works around the clock, seven days a week.

Joonas Eeemeli Sankala does hold the valuable BE/CE license Seppi is missing and is entrusted with steering the ‘road train’ every second week, with the time in between spent underground behind the wheel of a concrete truck like the one his colleague is driving. He enjoys the weekly change, as going up and down the same 40km stretch of road can become a bit monotonous – even though he does appreciate the plus in daylight.

Per shift, Sankala has to collect seven ‘tickets’, receipts issued by the mine to document the weight carried and distance covered that determine how much the transport company is getting paid. As a result, even Principal Suorso himself takes on a shift a day to maximise the unit’s profitability.

Although the mine’s requirements are strict and the schedule tight, neither Suorso nor his team seem stressed behind the wheel. Instead, they are highly concentrated and work strictly by the rulebook. At the mine, gigantic wheel loaders load the ore into the tipper bins, with each shovel adding another ten tonnes to the tally. Sankala says the rigid bin can fit two shovels, the trailer three. All up, the combination weighs in at 78 tonnes, the legal weight for a nine-axle combination fitted with twin-tyres in Finland.

Both truck body and trailer are built by Swedish manufacturer SLP. Since all loading and unloading processes are standardised, both bins only need to tip to the left, which saves weight and helps SLP max out each unit’s payload. Even though all bins are made of steel – a compromise given the rough environment – the trailer can boast a maximum payload of 40 tonnes, while the rigid contributes around 25 tonnes to the overall capacity of the combination.

Dust is blurring his sight as Joonas Sankala takes course for Tornio today. He knows the way by heart – after passing the gate, turn right onto the main road, first at 80km/h, then at 60, and follow the way through the forest alongside the abandoned railroad tracks. After about an hour, the steelworks will appear on the horizon, and you’re almost there. But, don’t forget to build up enough momentum to get the heavy load up the steep ramp up to the ore bunker.

On the way back, Sankala stops at a service station, where he swaps seats with his boss, Samuli Suorsa. The Director’s shift will see the same routine as Sankala’s, with a little time-out taken halfway through the never-ending day to cart coal at the mine site – a welcome change, even though it leaves a thick coat of black dust on the vehicle. But Suorsa says he doesn’t mind the truck getting dirty and taking a solid hit with every shovel unloaded into the bins. “The Arocs is a working truck and has to earn money,” he says, unfazed.

And a working truck the nine-axle combination is. Over the past nine months, it clocked up more than 170,000km on the short trip between Kemi and Tornio, chasing seven tickets a shift – day-in day-out. And with the Outokumpu contract running for a minimum of seven years, owner Samuli Suorso expects to go through another couple of combinations like it.

Until then, Samuli Suorsa and his team will continue to take turns driving through the ‘nightless night’ to make sure the nine-axle combination is utilised to the max.

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