Intermodal Muddle

Max Kvidera | March 01, 2011

New regs fall short of getting roadworthy chassis for container haulers.

Regulations that brought intermodal equipment under the watchful eye of the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration were supposed to lead to higher-quality chassis trailers. The trucking industry had long pushed for a maintenance and repair program for chassis, which, largely under steamship line control, had declined in overall quality.

The Port of Charleston, S.C., boasts some of the highest productivity in the industry. One measurement of that is its average truck turn time – 21 minutes per gate mission.

Today, two years after FMCSA rules were made final, owner-operators and drivers who work intermodal say that although the chassis quality has improved slightly, the program is far from perfect due to an unsettled transition in chassis ownership and responsibility. Owners are clearly responsible for chassis maintenance, but given the continuing inadequate care, truckers remain under the gun to make sure they’re not using defective equipment.

FMCSA sees its efforts last year as “productive,” says Spokesman Duane DeBruyne. “We conducted a number of educational roadability reviews with intermodal equipment providers,” he says. “We held webinars. We attended industry-sponsored events. Our Enforcement Division worked very closely with our state partners.”

Enforcement is more important than ever for drivers and carriers, given the launch of the federal Compliance, Safety, Accountability program that puts more emphasis on roadside inspections. Yet truckers are still picking up chassis with red tags that signify a mechanical problem, says Curtis Whalen, executive director of the Intermodal Motor Carriers Conference.

“If you keep taking these things, you’re going to get nailed with it on the road, and even worse it may break and you’ll have a safety problem where somebody gets hurt,” he says. “It’s a tough call.”

Joe Meyers, an owner-operator who works the Savannah, Ga., port, says more thorough inspections have led to him finding fewer flat tires and non-functioning lights on chassis. Still, “We run into a lot of situations where some chassis are 20 years old,” he says. “You run into a lot of problems with blown fuses, brake lights that don’t work. You have to rip everything out yourself and find out it was a bad wiring job. You often find bare wire rubbing on the chassis.”

Meyers says he and other drivers resort to hand signals to save time in searching for working-order chassis. They will give a thumbs-up or down when they’re about to drop equipment.

Independent contractor Jim Stewart says the chassis search can be chaotic. “It’s almost like an auction on the CB radio,” says Stewart, who works at ports in Charleston, S.C., and Savannah. “A guy will have a chassis in good condition and he’s getting ready to drop it, or another guy will call out for a particular chassis, and they’ll meet somewhere in the port. Some days it’s very hard to find a chassis that is pre-trip ready to go.”

Stewart says his worst nightmare is when he has to go the M&R line – maintenance and repair – to get a defect fixed. It can be 90 minutes before a mechanic gets to your chassis, and even then, the repairman might not fix everything because he’s working under a dollar ceiling. “They only fix what they’re told to fix,” he says.

Consequently, conducting a thorough pre-trip inspection is essential, intermodal truckers say. “Anybody who complains about chassis isn’t doing their job correctly,” says Dion Cracraft, an operator who owns CRD Trucking in Oakland, Calif. “If their lights aren’t working, they didn’t check it and make sure it was good to go.”

Chassis have been neglected for decades. Following years of discussion between the private and public sectors about how to solve the problem, talk turned to action two years ago, though progress continues to bog down.

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