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.

Traffic around railheads and ports is only getting busier. According to the Intermodal Association of North America (IANA), domestic container traffic was up 13 percent in the third quarter of 2002; shipments of international containers were 11 percent higher than a year ago. But those gains pale in comparison to growth over the past 20 years. Government statistics show intermodal traffic has tripled to 9 million containers and trailers since 1980. And that number is expected to double again by 2020.

Morgan Southern drivers Joseph Turner and Donavan Hill also enjoy the time they can spend at home with their families when they haul containers regionally.

All that traffic has caught the eye of politicians in places like California, where traffic and pollution are always high on the political agenda. In September, California Gov. Gray Davis signed a new anti-idling law aimed at reducing pollution at the ports. Marine terminal operators can now be fined if trucks idle for more than 30 minutes while waiting to load or unload. Terminal operators can’t pass on the $250 per incident fee to truck operators.

“Getting in and out is part of the job,” says Joseph Turner, a Morgan Southern owner-operator from McDonough, Ga. “You’ve got to learn the traffic patterns and put up with them. The early bird gets the worm.” Turner gets up at 2 or 3 a.m.

Sometimes, however, knowing the system doesn’t help. In late November, the Association of Bi-State Motor Carriers, a group of small independent carriers in New York and New Jersey, petitioned the Federal Maritime Commission to investigate port detention practices in those states. “Waiting in line for two to four hours means that most truckers can only make one or two deliveries a day, rather than the four of five they should,” says Dick Jones, executive director. “They cannot make a living.”

The group’s complaint says:

  • Port congestion and entry policies result in excessive waiting time;
  • Terminals do not compensate truckers for the excessive waiting time outside the terminal gate;
  • Within the terminal, tariff provisions protect the terminals from having to pay detention penalties to truckers;
  • Terminals require trucks to use off-site chassis depots, spending time that is excluded from the calculation of those penalties.

Such issues boiled over two years ago when truckers at ports across the country staged protests and developed a port driver’s bill of rights. While the protests fizzled, the issues still percolate under the surface. “You don’t hear that many complaints anymore, but the issues haven’t gone away,” says IANA’s Tom Malloy.

Marc Largent, president of Marc Largent Inc., a 27-year-old California drayage company, says traffic and congestion are always a problem but knowing the system can make a driver or owner-operator an attractive commodity to a carrier. “The smartest owner-operators know this – get there early in the morning,” he says.

Roadworthy Rides
Traffic is just one element that frustrates intermodal haulers. Equipment is another. While some companies, like Morgan Southern, stock the latest model trucks, finding a “roadable” chassis for a container can be like panning for gold, says Morgan Southern company driver Donavan Hill.

The Stone Mountain, Ga., trucker says part of learning the ropes is learning to seek out equipment that is roadworthy, even if it means driving around chassis yards looking for good tires and uncracked lamps. “If you get stuck with a bad chassis, that’s your fault,” Hill says. Maybe so, but it doesn’t make driving it or paying the penalties any easier. In most states, drivers or their carriers are responsible for the condition of the equipment, even if they don’t own it. While the same is true in normal over-the-road hauls, getting stuck with a bad chassis in intermodal hauling happens frequently.

Jim Shannon says the boxes he ends up with are usually fine, but the chassis are another story. The equipment owners are “supposed to make sure the chassis are roadable, and everything is supposed to be checked over,” Shannon says. “But that’s debatable. I won’t say they don’t look, but -”

Shannon says he once picked up a chassis that had been inspected and headed a few miles away to Greely, Colo. to look at a new truck. When he got to the dealership and had to make a left turn, one of the wheels stayed where it was. “The bearings came apart on it. Thank God it was on our side,” he says. “We could have lost it and had it hit some car. The axle came right out of the wheel.”

Such incidents are more common than railroads and marine shipping companies would like to admit. “It’s getting to be an ugly piece of the business,” says Morgan Southern’s Ben Kirkland. “Roadability is a big issue. It impacts safety and costs.” Despite its size, Morgan Southern, like most intermodal carriers, is unable to pass the cost of citations or repairs back to equipment owners once a driver is on the road.

Responsibility for the equipment remains a dividing point between carriers and equipment owners – usually shipping lines and railroads. “That debate still rages,” Tom Malloy says. “Who’s responsible for the integrity of the equipment?”

Some states have taken the matter into their own hands, although it is unclear how those laws will affect truckers. California, South Carolina, Louisiana and Illinois have all passed legislation designed to foist responsibility back on the equipment owner, but the laws take different approaches. Some issue tickets to the owner, others give the driver or carrier the right to get restitution for a ticket from the owner. Malloy says the industry is trying to craft a standard law where owners and carriers would share responsibility fairly, but for now there’s confusion over what rights carriers and equipment owners have.

One group pushing stringent equipment laws is the Teamsters union. It was also behind the protests and bill of rights two years ago. After being rebuffed by port authorities, the union is pushing those rights through state legislatures in the form of laws, says Ron Carver, a campaign director at the Teamsters Port Division. Essentially, the union’s legislative package addresses detainment, equipment and overweight issues. These three issues represent a focal point of problems for port truckers, who the union is also trying to organize. It can already claim victory in California on two of those issues.

“We believe that we’ll be successful in every state we go to with this legislation,” Carver says. “These are public safety and health issues in addition to driver issues that we’re addressing.”

Kirkland says rail companies, which own much of the equipment Morgan Southern drivers haul, recently changed rules regarding tire blowouts, a high-frequency mechanical failure on container chassis. Chassis tires are often recapped multiple times, and unless a strict maintenance regimen is followed, can fall quickly into neglect.

In the past, when a tire blew out for reasons other than driver error, the railroad assumed responsibility and reimbursed the carrier or owner-operator. But in August, Morgan Southern’s rail equipment owners tightened their reimbursement rules, and the mechanic who replaces the tire will determine the fault before the railroad will decide whether to reimburse. If the company or trucker is left on the hook for each $400 tire, loads become quickly unprofitable.

“With tires, we never know how often they’ve been recapped,” says Shannon. “You may have one blowout on a chassis or three blowouts. We have to pay up front on our own spares. We have to buy the tire.” Eventually, Shannon says, he gets reimbursed, but it can take up to 90 days, and with tight margins a few blowouts can put an owner-operator over the edge.

If a driver gets a piece of equipment with problems, he does have options. For one, he can ask that it be repaired, usually at the port, but that takes time. He can also ask that the box be “flipped” or transferred to another chassis. But that’s always the decision of last resort, Malloy says, because it can take hours and snarl traffic further.

Malloy says equipment issues are making slow improvements, and truckload carriers like J.B. Hunt, which has made a big foray into intermodal hauling, tend to own and operate their own equipment now to avoid such problems. That improves the equipment available to some drivers. Shipping lines, rail shippers and trucking companies are also discussing new standards and trying to improve both equipment and the responsibility structure.

Drivers also have to be careful picking their loads. Many containers are overweight because rail and shipping lines aren’t as sensitive to weight as trucking companies. A driver is responsible if his truck is overweight, and because not all terminals have scales, he may get a ticket before he even knows his load is heavy. The Teamsters’ Carver says every shipment of beer from Amsterdam that comes through New York is too heavy for U.S. highways, but it ends up on the road.

“Truckers have to take the loads,” Carver says. That’s one of the reasons why the union, as part of its legislative push, is trying to get overweight containers quarantined by terminals before they get assigned to unsuspecting truckers.

Most intermodal operations are small one- to two-truck operations. But increasingly, big trucking companies like Swift and Schneider are getting into the game.

Intermodal’s Upside
Despite the hazards of hauling cans, there are some major advantages, say drivers and carriers. For one, most intermodal truckers are regional and get home on a regular, if not nightly, schedule. Joseph Turner is home most nights with his family, which he says is more important to him than the money he made as an over-the-road driver.

“I drive in a 275- to 300-mile radius,” he says. “I’m geared to my family. I still have to get out and make a living but I get to see them. That was important to me when they were growing up. I got to see them grow up.”

Driver Donavan Hill says his wife didn’t like his stint as an OTR trucker, either. “She couldn’t stand it when I worked over the road,” Hill says. “I decided to go local and also go back to school and study computer science. Now I get home every day and still get the bills paid.”

Hill says the pay is less, but that he spent more when he was on the road in truckstops and waiting for loads. Now he has more money left over and more time with his family.

Jim and Athena Shannon like the predictability of a longer, but still regional, haul from Colorado to the Port of Oakland. “It’s sort of a dedicated run,” Shannon says. “It’s not that cut and dried, but we pretty much go to the same facility every week. We run the same days of the week. That’s what we like.”

The couple also likes the no-touch freight. “We never have to haggle with lumpers,” Shannon says. “Or wait for a warehouse that claims that they’re running short.”

The no-touch freight and the regional hauling attracts drivers to intermodal, especially after they’ve had their fill of three-week shifts away from home, says Morgan Southern’s Jim Morgan.

Drivers also like detention pay, which, while not standard for intermodal haulers, is more common in intermodal operations. Often such pay is mandated by law if the detention occurs at a terminal, although terminal operators will often take steps to avoid paying it. During the West Coast port shutdown, the Shannons even managed some detention pay from their carrier, even though it was a lot less than what they would have made if they had been running.

For owner-operator Ed Santos, however, the flexibility is the reason he hauls intermodal. “I can go to work early or I can go late,” he says. “It’s not important to be there at a certain time. It’s working for me right now.” With two kids, Santos says, the flexibility and regional nature of his work is essential. He gets to pick up his 4-year-old daughter from school and spend time with his 13-year-old son. “It helps to spend time with them,” he says.

For those drivers who still feel the call of the open road, hauling intermodal may not sound attractive, but it may be something they’ll have to do. With the growth of intermodal hauling, more OTR truck drivers used to pulling 53-foot vans will likely haul some cans. “The reality is that fleets can’t get away from intermodal,” Malloy says. “Intermodal has become more integrated into the overall transportation system.”

Intermodal is also becoming more integrated with large truckload carriers like J.B. Hunt and Schneider. Malloy says that J.B. Hunt did more than $740 million in intermodal business this year, and Schneider topped $500 million. Schneider has increased that business 20 percent each of the past three years.

Many intermodal operations are like Jim and Athena Shannon’s – a one-truck shop. In fact, more than half of Morgan Southern’s drivers are owner-operators. They may have been long-haul truckers in the past, but more and more are moving to intermodal for the convenience and flexibility.

“We thought we’d get bored doing the same things every week, but we’ve been everywhere at least twice already,” Shannon says. “Now we know when we’re going to be home and can anticipate getting there. We can even call Sunday our own. Nope – we don’t miss over-the-road.”


Got your ID?
Port security tightens slightly, but there’s more to come

When trucker Jim Shannon pulled up to the Port of Oakland, Calif., in November, he pulled out his new security card, which was issued last year, to enter the sprawling complex. The guard also checked his photo identification, a new step some ports have added in the war against terrorism.

“We’re seeing a little bit more security than we used to,” he says.

Port security has been criticized by terrorism experts as lax in the wake of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. Critics charge that it would be easy for terrorists to smuggle biological, chemical or nuclear weapons into the country. In response, ports have stepped up security and now inspect more containers at the docks.

On the East Coast, some efforts to check backgrounds and issue ID cards have met with resistance. A plan in Florida, for instance, to issue separate ID cards for every port raised the ire of trucking companies, afraid the fees and complexity would force them to do business with just one port.

Currently, a plan for a transportation worker ID card is in the works at the new Transportation Security Administration. Once finalized, the card should cut through some of the red tape. Transportation workers at the Port of Long Beach and airports in Los Angeles and Philadelphia are using the IDs as part of a pilot program. The program will probably include background checks for all transportation workers with access to sensitive areas, experts say.

The Intermodal Association of North America’s Tom Malloy says the security issue is a large onion to slice. “There’s a lot of concerns about what’s coming into the country, because once it’s here, it’s in the system,” he says.

In late November, the Department of Transportation and U.S. Customs Service launched a program called Operation Safe Commerce to fund business initiatives for enhancing security for container cargo.

The agencies will use the program to identify vulnerabilities in the supply chain and to improve methods for ensuring the security of cargo entering and leaving the United States. Techniques that prove successful will be recommended for implementation.

Congress, through the 2002 Supplemental Appropriations Act, provided $28 million for the program.

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