Hauling Cans

| April 07, 2005

A container lift hitches up to Ed Santos’ truck at the Port of Oakland. Tens of millions of containers are shipped by rail, water or truck every year, and chances are good the average trucker will eventually be hauling cans.

It’s Oct. 1, 2002, and Ed Santos is not having his best day in trucking.

Like thousands of other intermodal haulers based on the West Coast, he’s spending the day waiting and hoping that the ports will reopen. A labor dispute between dockworkers and shipping lines has the gates locked from Seattle to San Diego, and truckers like Santos are losing money.

“I’m on unpaid vacation,” he says while cooling his heels at a new Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway terminal. The terminal is backing up with containers shipped from back east and destined for Asian markets. “This is very unfortunate.”

Across the road from the BNSF terminal, dozens of long-haul intermodal truckers relax and chat in a makeshift parking lot, their refrigerated loads of fresh meat and recently harvested nuts and vegetables aging in the California sun. Idled owner-operators Jim Shannon and wife Athena say they would rather be hauling cans than sitting on them.

Still, a month after the messy port shutdown, the Shannons say they wouldn’t trade their weekly dedicated container haul, which runs from Greely, Colo., to Oakland, Calif., for an over-the-road run again, despite the challenges inherit in intermodal hauling.

“We don’t really miss driving over-the-road,” Jim Shannon says. “We have a convenient set-up. We know when we’re going to be home and we don’t miss going to the East Coast at all.”

As intermodal traffic has increased, so have the number of drivers embracing the quick-turn regional hauling. Hauling cans, as the 20- to 53-foot rail and shipping containers are often called, has its advantages: predictable home time, no-touch freight and lots of opportunity. But it also has its headaches; equipment is often terrible – when it’s available, ports are difficult to navigate and, because terminals and ports are located in congested areas, traffic is usually an issue. And then there’s the occasional labor skirmish.

The October labor shutdown, which occurred when the Pacific Maritime Association locked out the International Longshore and Warehouse Union at 29 ports on the West Coast, lasted only 10 days, but its effects on West Coast shipping lingered for weeks afterwards. In late November, the two sides reached a tentative deal that was expected to be approved by a union vote in December.

“The shipping schedules have really been disrupted,” Shannon says a few weeks after President Bush ordered the ports reopened. “But it hasn’t really affected us that much since the shutdown. It’s added about 30 minutes to our turnaround time.”

Road Rules
In the grand scheme of things, 30 minutes of extra time at a port or rail terminal – where turnaround can take as little as 45 minutes – is a small penalty compared to the hours some truckers spend holed up at shipper or receiver locations. But learning to time deliveries and pickups at terminals can mean the difference between a day breaking even and a day making money. That’s because intermodal drivers face a tangled thicket of traffic, inner-city driving and procedures just to get to their loads.

Terminals, whether rail or marine, tend to be located in busy areas of large cities. The traffic alone takes its toll, says Jim Morgan, director of safety and recruiting at Morgan Southern, a large intermodal carrier based in Atlanta. “There’s a lot of time sitting and waiting,” he says. “Most railheads have lots of traffic. When you’re sitting, you’re not making money, whether you’re paid by the mile or percentage.”

Consider the Port of Oakland. Once you figure out how to get from I-80 to the port without crossing the Bay Bridge, you have to navigate 19 miles of waterfront and 665 acres of terminals. And Oakland’s port is one of the nicest facilities in the country. Compared to Los Angeles or ports on the East Coast, getting in and out of Oakland is easy, according to veteran drivers.

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