Hauling Cans

| April 07, 2005

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.”

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