Striking back

| September 01, 2006

Congestion has contributed to an 8 percent decline in trucking productivity since 2002.

Two years ago, Pitt Ohio Express began using cargo vans in addition to the tractor-trailers and straight trucks the carrier typically uses for its less-than-truckload shipments. Delivery vans are used widely by small-package companies such as UPS and FedEx, but Pitt Ohio today operates more than 75 Sprinter and Ford F-800 vans to deliver directly to the customer. Many of those shipments weigh less than 200 pounds.

Several considerations drove Pitt Ohio’s decision to test smaller trucks. It now can offer driving jobs to individuals who don’t have commercial driver’s licenses, and vans are far cheaper to buy and operate. But a key factor was congestion.

Typical LTL shipments, especially those at the end of the route, are at the mercy of traffic conditions as delays build upon delays. Door-to-door delivery vans can avoid those delays more easily and are able to maneuver standstills far better than can tractor-trailers or straight trucks.

The program has worked well thus far. “Now that results are coming in, we are planning on how we will roll this out more formally,” says Chuck Hammel, president of Pitt Ohio, which operates nearly 1,000 trucks and 21 terminals in the mid-Atlantic from its base in Pittsburgh. This new operation helps Pitt Ohio reconcile two opposing forces: customers’ dependence on smaller, just-in-time shipments and the growing productivity challenge presented by metropolitan congestion.

Pitt Ohio’s move is but one strategy fleets and owner-operators have adopted or considered to minimize the impact of congestion. Others are increased drop-and-hook and intermodal operations, off-peak scheduling, even the pursuit of regulatory changes involving hours of service and truck sizes and weights.

Congestion is one of several major reasons that productivity, as measured in miles per truck per month, has slipped by at least 8 percent since 2002, says Bob Costello, chief economist of the American Trucking Associations. The trend is not surprising, given that between 1980 and 2000, traffic nearly doubled, while available roadway increased only 4 percent.

It’s difficult to isolate congestion’s impact from that of other factors, including the change in hours-of-service regulations in 2004 that cut drivers’ flexibility. Carriers use some of the same tactics to soften the impact of both. For example, many carriers use the hours restrictions and the freight capacity shortage as leverage to shift toward drop-and-hook operations.

“We have tried to convert as much to drop-and-hook as possible in order to gain flexibility, letting drivers work their schedule to best fit their needs,” says Steve Gordon, chief operating officer of truckload carrier Gordon Trucking, which operates about 1,200 trucks from its base in Pacific, Wash. In theory, drop-and-hook operations allow for pickups or deliveries during nighttime and early morning hours, avoiding peak congestion.

Such flexibility has become more important under the current hours regs. Because truckers must operate within a strict 14-hour driving window before a mandatory rest, night duty might not work if the delivery can’t be completed during off-peak hours.

Drop-and-hook operations help only where there’s a window for delivery, Gordon says. “In most cases, simply dropping the trailer at the appointment time doesn’t help. It just adds the cost of the drop trailer without the payback of a flexible schedule.”

But thirst for capacity often makes shippers more willing to help with scheduling. “We have worked with customers on release and delivery times in an effort to avoid service uncertainty caused by fluctuating traffic patterns,” Gordon says. And the carrier has had success in getting some shippers to change release times to make a 475- to 525-mile trip feasible from a safety standpoint.

“Certain shippers in Southern California, for example, would release these types of loads late in the afternoon, guaranteeing the driver would be stuck in traffic, burning hours,” Gordon says. “We’ve worked to achieve a release in the morning hours the day prior to delivery, so a driver doesn’t waste hours in traffic and can safely make delivery without a relay.”

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