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.

On Dec. 17, 2008, the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration published a final “roadability” rule making intermodal equipment providers subject to FMCSA regulations and establishing shared responsibility among intermodal equipment providers, carriers and drivers for establishing safe equipment. The rules required IEPs to register with FMCSA and file identification information; establish an inspection and maintenance program; provide a clear response path for carrier and driver reports about defects; and mark each chassis with a U.S. DOT ID number. The rule became effective June 30, 2009.

On Dec. 30 of that year, the agency amended the regulations to extend to June 30, 2010, the deadline for carriers and drivers to submit driver vehicle inspection reports (DVIR) on intermodal equipment. Then another extension to June 30, 2011, was made to submit the DVIRs. In addition, the IEPs had until last Dec. 17 to place a DOT number on all chassis.

“It’s been slow and painful process so far,” Whalen says. “There’s been lot of problems with databases and procedures on where and how the truck driver is supposed to file [reports].”

Bill Aboudi, owner of AB Trucking in Oakland, Calif., says the FMCSA rule was designed to place the responsibility for chassis condition on the IEP, which is its owner – most often an oceangoing carrier – unless a long-term chassis lease specifies the renter is responsible. But the steamship lines “basically dissed that rule,” he contends, by getting rid of many chassis or turning them over to leasing companies or other third parties.

Next to decks of container boxes, intermodal truckers wait to be checked in at a Port of Seattle terminal.

Who is responsible – the leasing company or the party renting the chassis – if an equipment defect is caught during an on-road inspection is still being sorted out, Whalen says. Matters such as assigning responsibility for repair when a chassis defect occurs on the road and mandating pre-trip inspections aren’t covered in the new regulations.

The worst chassis have been weeded out, Whalen believes, as some steamship lines have welcomed the scale back on FMCSA regulations as impetus to quit a practice they didn’t like and that is peculiar to the United States. At European ports, for example, motor carriers provide chassis.

Aboudi doesn’t buy that chassis quality has improved. He contends the rule has been circumvented and will require DOT to “come down on the terminal operators and their contractors, because what they’ve done is shifted their responsibility to truckers.”

Leon Knopp, owner of Nu-Way Inc., which provides trucking services for the ports of Seattle and Tacoma, Wash., says he’s hearing about fewer equipment defects. One reason is that owner-operators leased to his firm are inspecting chassis closer than before to make sure they are accepting equipment that is road ready.

“If we’re all doing our jobs as carriers, there shouldn’t be any defective chassis because our guys should ferret that out at inspection and simply refuse and make the port switch to another chassis,” he says. “If you’re on the roads with a defect, you’re already behind the curve.”


Intermodal veterans

Dion Cracraft: Running his own company

Dion Cracraft, an operator who owns CRD Trucking in Oakland, Calif., has been an owner-operator most of the 32 years he’s been behind the wheel. He pulls containers within a 100-mile radius of the Oakland port.

Cracraft won’t reveal how much he’s paid per load, but says the amount was increased by $20 a load a year ago. He also gets a fuel surcharge as a percentage of the load rate based on diesel at $3.50 a gallon.

For Cracraft, 2010 was tougher than 2009, although he kept busy. When his one-truck operation gets slow, he calls on owner-operator friends, but he made fewer calls in 2010.

“One of the warehouses (where I pick up) went from 30 loads a month down to five,” he says. “Another company I do a lot of work for is a scrap metal place and they brought in more work, so I wasn’t affected much overall.”

Cracraft says he makes enough from hauling containers to make payments on his 2010 Freightliner and medical insurance and contributions to his retirement. “The job’s always been great for me,” he says. “It’s a hard business because if the dollar is weak, there are lots of exports. If our dollar’s strong, there are lots of imports.”

Joe Meyers: Leased out

Joe Meyers considers himself lucky to get fuel surcharges in both directions.

During much of his 19 years driving, Meyers has been an owner-operator. He’s now leased to Maritime Delivery Services, which is owned by oceangoing carrier OOCL.

Since September, he says he’s had only two weeks when he didn’t work at least five or six days. Most of the time he runs within a 300-mile radius of the Savannah, Ga., port.

Meyers knows he’s doing better than other drivers. He earns a 22-cent-a-mile fuel surcharge in both directions, while drivers he knows receive a surcharge in only one direction — if they get it at all. “Agents don’t want to give a surcharge in both directions, and they keep what’s left over,” he says.

On a recent trip to Atlanta, he received 92 cents a mile, plus the fuel surcharge both ways. “A guy on his own authority or working with an agent will get paid per mile or a percentage and a surcharge that works out less than that,” he says.

Meyers says he’s making more money now than when he was running for a motor carrier, plus he’s home most nights. Before, his weekly settlements would average around $1,200, he says. Now he works five days a week and gets a settlement closer to $1,500.

Meyers says his experience at finding good chassis enhances his productivity. “I know how to play the game now,” he says. “I can get out of (the port) twice as fast as a new guy.”

Jim Stewart: Using trip leases

Jim Stewart says rates are low but he’s making enough money as a free-lance hauler to get by.

Long-time independent Jim Stewart says he’s been in and out of intermodal trucking since 1972, during a colorful career that’s included more than driving. In the late 1990s, he says he worked with the Teamsters to help lead protests in support of better working conditions and pay for truckers at East Coast ports. In 2003, he says, he worked with unions and Congressmen to help craft a bill to improve chassis inspection and maintenance programs.

In recent years, Stewart has found trip leases pay well and fit his need for steady, yet flexible full-time work year-round. When a carrier has more work than it can handle, its dispatcher will call Stewart to pull local boxes or run into the ports of Charleston, S.C., or Savannah, Ga.

Stewart, who drives a 1986 Western Star, works mostly with three or four people from his many contacts. Instead of settling for $37 to $40 from a carrier to make a pickup at the port, Stewart will negotiate for $45 to $50 or more and get it, he says. “We’re doing better than a lot of owner-operators,” he says. “About a dozen of us share names of carriers and dispatchers that work with us — almost like a small hiring hall.”


Forcing out owner-operators

In Southern California, a combination of stringent emissions regulations and political wheeling and dealing is making it tough for independent contractors to survive. Regulations imposed by the California Air Resources Board to reduce diesel emissions have forced many truckers to retrofit older trucks or buy newer trucks that meet standards.

At the same time, the Port of Los Angeles has mounted a Clean Truck Program to cut emissions for truck operators working the nation’s busiest port. The port argues that large, financially stable carriers can do a better job of providing newer trucks with cleaner engines than owner-operators who might struggle to afford new technology. So the port plans to convert the trucking providers, now 90 percent owner-operators, to an all-employee workforce by the end of 2013. The American Trucking Associations has challenged that part of the program in court, saying it has nothing to do with meeting clean air goals.

Some carriers and port observers view the plan as a favor to the Teamsters, who cannot organize independent contractors. Port authorities in Oakland, Calif., New York, Seattle and Newark, N.J., among others, are closely watching the Los Angeles port developments before initiating similar programs.