Striking back

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.

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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.”

Another anti-congestion tactic has some carriers relieving over-the-road drivers of the delivery burden altogether. That’s the approach Schneider National is eyeing in several major metro areas.

“We look at where it might make sense to add some local drivers – Chicago, Atlanta, Los Angeles and parts of New England – who would do nothing but deliver loads,” says John Miller, vice president of one-way truckload operations for the Green Bay, Wis., mega-carrier. “Long haul would hand off to a local driver who knows how to navigate the system well.”

As fleets try to maximize their flexibility to minimize congestion-related delays, technology can help. Everyone looks forward to the day when a system can detect slowing traffic miles ahead and, via a navigation tool, spit out an alternate route within seconds.

That’s the vision of Alain Kornhouser, co-founder and chairman of ALK Technologies, which markets mapping and navigation software to the industry. He imagines motorists collectively using Global Positioning Systems, wireless communications, computer processing and robust navigation software to share traffic data and use it to quickly calculate estimated arrival times and obtain alternate routes when trouble spots are detected. Most of the necessary technologies are available today, but they haven’t been linked together.

One option to offset some of the productivity lost to congestion is for trucks to carry more freight on each trip.

As Congress heads toward another major highway bill in 2009, the American Trucking Associations hopes to win fleet owners some flexibility on truck size and weight, says Tim Lynch, ATA’s senior vice president of federation relations and strategic planning. ATA supports policy that would allow gross vehicle weights of 97,000 pounds in certain situations and greater use of longer combination vehicles. It also seeks federal authority to allow Western states to standardize weight rules to make interstate transportation more efficient, Lynch says.

“The specifics of what we’re seeking are not yet mapped out,” Lynch says. Critics charge that upping the gross vehicle limit to 97,000 pounds would require governments to spend billions to reinforce or reconstruct bridges nationwide. Conceding that point, ATA is not pushing the 97,000-pound allowance in areas where bridge integrity is at issue.

Yet, any slackening of such limits is sure to draw controversy, and not just from vocal critics such as Public Citizen, a watchdog group. At its annual meeting last March, the board of the Truckload Carriers Association, representing the industry’s largest segment, failed to endorse the ATA policy.

“Truckload carriers have very legitimate concerns,” Lynch acknowledges. Hauling 97,000 pounds means spec’ing a third axle on the trailer, and based on past experience with size and weight changes, many truckload carriers fear they would have to buy new trailers to stay competitive without fair compensation from their shippers. If shippers need those higher payloads, they must be willing to pay for them, Lynch says.

Higher truck payloads also have been controversial among trucking’s traditional nemesis, the railroad industry. During the debate over the most recent highway legislation, ATA and the American Association of Railroads agreed to a cease-fire; neither sought changes in truck size and weight rules. But that pact won’t necessarily be renewed for the next go-round.

Despite their Capitol Hill skirmishes, the trucking and railroad industries are working together more closely. Several large carriers, such as Schneider and J.B. Hunt, are aggressively pursuing intermodal business. Earlier this year, Schneider launched a dedicated train service to manufacturers and businesses in the Ohio River Valley in collaboration with CSX Intermodal and the Kansas City Southern Railroad.

Rail has its drawbacks, but it can help fight congestion in many high-traffic areas, such as ports. In Southern California, planners are eyeing more rail links to move containers out of the congested ports at Los Angeles and Long Beach to truck distribution centers miles beyond cities.

In the East, Norfolk Southern and several states plan to spend $300 million on an intermodal project that will link the Port of Virginia in Hampton Roads to distribution centers in Ohio.

ATA’s Costello believes that intermodal will be a small part of the solution to congested highways. ATA’s most recent forecast has intermodal tonnage growing at the fastest rate, 78 percent, of all freight transportation modes between 2005 and 2016. But 10 years from now, intermodal still will represent only 2 percent of the nation’s freight tonnage, compared to 69 percent for trucking, Costello says.

Such incremental changes in transportation modes, along with changes in scheduling and technology, might be the most achievable options as the industry continues its struggle to operate amid increasing congestion.
Aaron Huff contributed to this article.

Congestion creates more than enough trouble for carrier executives: higher fuel costs, lost revenue, service failures, extra insurance claims from increased wrecks.

Owner-operators bear most if not all of those same burdens, as well as the stress of being the ones who have to endure rush hours, wrecks, construction zones, bottlenecks and road rage. Many have found ways to cope with congestion, but at the cost of lost productivity. When that occurs, owner-operators soften the personal frustrations, but not necessarily the financial hits.

“This very subject came up in our weekly operations meeting last week when discussing driver irritants and turnover,” says Steve Gordon, chief operating officer of Gordon Trucking of Pacific, Wash. “Some folks wanted to discuss it as a big issue; some felt it was largely out of our control.”

Indeed, most truckers know there is only so much they can do to cope with congestion.

“I try to drive off-peak hours through the major cities,” says Desmond Rafeek, owner-operator of Rafeek Transport in Tucson, Ariz. “But if I’m going to be delivering in a city, there’s really no way to get around it.”

In addition to trying to schedule around rush hour, Rafeek takes loops around major cities instead of driving through downtown. “It adds miles to the trip sometimes, but it saves time,” he says. “You have to think about what’s more efficient.”

Christopher Hendrix, who is leased to CFI, fights congestion not only in the big metro areas such as Chicago, Los Angeles and Washington, D.C., but also in cities such as Austin, Texas, which has no outer loop. “There’s only one way to get in and out,” he says. “You have to add an extra three or four hours to your trip.” So Hendrix often stops to eat, sleep or shower to avoid peak traffic.

Sue Lynch and her husband always stop between 3 p.m. and 6 p.m. if they are about to go through Chicago. “We don’t want the hassle,” says Lynch, co-owner of Wisconsin-based B.S. Transport. “It burns more fuel, it’s more wear and tear on the brakes and mechanical components, and it’s a huge cause of road rage.”

To lessen the financial blow of congestion-related breaks, Lynch favors changing the hours of service to allow a two-hour break within the 14-hour driving period without having it count against on-duty hours.

A company driver for Transco Lines who owns several trucks himself, Barry Metzler doubts much can be done about congestion other than moving freight to other modes of transportation. “The major problem is the population density,” he says. “They keep trying to add more lanes, but those lanes fill right up.”

A year ago, Metzler moved to Arkansas from the Northeast. “People ask me why I like Arkansas, and I just point to the road and say, ‘Because you can see the asphalt here. You can’t in Connecticut.'”

Because they see congestion as a fact of life, many owner-operators believe the only real change to be made is in their attitudes.

“Patience is the key,” Rafeek says. “There’s a lot of stress involved with traffic. If you can stay patient and understanding, which is part of the job, at least you can stay safe.”