Doubles or Nothing

To outsiders, the varied world of trucking looks like one thing. The motoring public makes no distinction among types of equipment or the skills needed to drive them.

Vans, flats and reefers are simply trailers; tractors have a long nose or no nose at all. If a man or woman is a truck driver, then he or she can get in any truck pulling any trailer with any kind of load and get on down the road.

Truck drivers, on the other hand, are a bit more sophisticated. They know it takes a certain level of knowledge to drive but it takes added training and know-how to pull a reefer, keep a load on a flatbed, or keep those wiggle wagons on the straight and narrow.

But what makes a driver want to pull two trailers? The differences between pulling doubles and standard trailers go far beyond the differences in skills required and in the actual physical work. There are significant lifestyle differences.

The nature of doubles operations is distinctly different from irregular-route and long-haul operations. Consider Overnite, a major nationwide less-than-truckload carrier with 166 terminals. According to Brad Edgell, terminal manager at Overnite’s Pittsburgh terminal, Overnite’s doubles operation provides the extreme flexibility an LTL carrier needs to optimize equipment and deliver freight on time.

Overnite’s drivers are dispatched from three boards. The schedule board handles regular freight, the extra board handles runs beyond the typical daily amount, and two drivers handle freight on what is called the long board. Most of Pittsburgh’s 45 drivers run off the schedule board and have plenty of opportunity for extra runs on days off.

Ralph Loring, an 8-year veteran of Overnite’s doubles operation, generally runs from the terminal near the junction of I-70 and I-79 to the Harrisburg terminal near Carlisle, Penn., near the junction of I-81 and the Pennsylvania Turnpike. His run is a 412-mile turn. In a week, Loring will run 2,060 miles if he does five Harrisburg turns. He will make somewhere between $800 and $900.

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It is entirely possible for Loring to make his turn in less than 10 hours and be headed for the house by 5 o’clock if he leaves Pittsburgh at 8 a.m. He works five days a week, runs his 100,000 miles a year and is home every night. He is a truck driver whose lifestyle includes a life at home.

The majority of Edgell’s drivers have been with this Overnite terminal for 10 years or more. “They’d have to chase me out of here with a stick,” Loring says.

Loring leaves the terminal in Meadowlands on schedule, pulling two 28-foot pups with 14,000 pounds of freight and an estimated gross weight of 36,000 pounds. This makes the dry weight of two pups and tractor 22,000 pounds – light enough not to put a whole lot of strain on the little 315 under the snub-nosed hood. “They don’t give you an excess of power, but then you don’t usually run heavy, ” Loring says. Often he returns to Meadowlands with a loaded and an empty or two empties. Even with the front pup maxed, there is only 27,000 on the drives.

The beefed-up Silver Eagle waits for a heavy pup.

In the mirror the two trailers looked like one, pulling straight as a die. “Sometimes you get a bad trailer that will wiggle, but they pull straight otherwise,” Loring says. The myth about doubles is that they are more unstable than a single, but Loring discounts this. “Doubles are more stable in turns,” he says. Thus, instability seems to be a factor only when light and running in inclement weather. Sometimes, when the front pup is heavy, a driver will use a Silver Eagle dolly. This dolly has a cross-mounted set of springs under the fifth wheel to improve stability. Drivers in Harrisburg dispatch universally curse the Silver Eagle because they say it causes backslap. One might imagine the possible if unlikely scenario of two fully loaded pups with a Silver Eagle dolly being a real bear. Maximum gross weight for two pups is the same in Pennsylvania as for a single – 80,000 pounds – according to Ray Terry, safety director for Overnite.

On the very busy Green Stamp, Loring pulls out to pass quickly many times and takes corners more easily than is possible pulling only one trailer. “It’s easier to maneuver these pups than one trailer in a turn,” he says. “They turn sharper.”

Loring cranks down a joe dog.

While his doubles are about 6 feet longer than a 53-foot van, counting the 3 feet between them, they bend twice. Each trailer has a fifth wheel, the second being attached to a removable dolly called a “joe dog.” The yard in Harrisburg has hundreds of these dollies, some of which have a little wheel in front that can be extended when the dolly is unhooked from a trailer. They are heavy but easily moved with this little wheel dollied down.

Joe dogs without the wheel take more manhandling, but since drivers never touch their freight, it is little enough work. The drop-and-hook nature of Overnite’s operation is one more reason turns can be done quickly. Loring spends about 30 minutes at the terminal before starting back for Meadowlands.

In many ways pulling two 28-footers is like pulling one long trailer that is articulated twice. If there were some way to lock the second fifth wheel to keep the second trailer from turning, even backing could be accomplished. As it is, Loring makes sure he never gets in a spot he can’t pull straight through. This sometimes means making a parking space. It always means being aware of how parking lots are configured in order to avoid getting in a jam from which there is only a long and difficult escape.

Sometimes, the last trailer can be dropped, then the first trailer dropped and the second hooked up, backed out and rehooked. Other times, there is no space and the only recourse for a driver is to wait until someone moves. On the other hand, doubles drivers have less need of truckstops and fuel stops because their turns are short and fuel is generally available at terminals. Loring brings his lunch, and one stop for coffee in Somerset on the outbound leg is often the only break he takes. He spends very little money on the road.

Overnite’s doubles drivers rarely worry overly much about logs. Loring says he never runs out of hours. It is entirely possible to make only three entries a day; one in Meadowlands, one in Harrisburg, and one in Meadowlands again to keep the log current within the required four hours. On the rare occasion a doubles driver reaches his 10-hour limit, he either stays in the bunkhouse at a terminal or the company puts him up in a motel. Trucks are governed at 66 mph, plenty of top-end to make schedules. This was not always the case. Edgell says years ago, Overnite did not have a system to get drivers back to their home terminal every day. Hotel expenses and the need for increased driver satisfaction moved the company from longer runs to day turns.

Loring says the worst part of the job is running back from Harrisburg with two empties with his single axle during winter. The Green Stamp is notorious for unexpected snow squalls in the mountains around Somerset.

Loring says because both sets of trailer brakes come on at the same time, doubles braking is similar to stopping a long single in that respect. Still, you want to leave yourself plenty of room. “You’ve got to keep longer distances between you and traffic,” Loring says. “And you need to think further ahead to stay out of situations where you need to brake.”

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