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.