Long haul trucking in danger of decline…

April 25, 2009

I’m going to go out on the line a little here and predict that long haul trucking as we have known it for the past several decades is on its way out and it could lose ground rather rapidly. I don’t think it will disappear altogether anytime soon. But I think the combined forces of unpredictable energy costs, the global recession (that is a lot like a depression), and the move toward more energy efficiency and environmentally-friendly ways of doing things is hastening long haul’s demise.

Until or unless we find some drastically different way of moving goods trucks will of course be needed for local and even regional delivery and I imagine long haul of some goods will continue for practical reasons.

But during last summer’s diesel spike that saw per gallon prices move toward $5 many shippers started looking more seriously at using alternative means of transport, namely the railroad. Also I read one story that said that some goods coming to America from Asia that had heretofore been unloaded at Pacific Coast ports to be trucked across the nation were instead being shipped via the Panama Canal to the East Coast. The trip was somewhat longer, but the savings in fuel costs made it worth it.

Also during that fuel crisis it was reported that the produce industry in Salinas, Ca. was looking seriously at refurbishing the spur lines into the packing sheds. One packer said he recalled shipping by rail back in the 70s.

Today a freight forwarder called Railex is shipping produce via a unit train each week (and is set to add one more) from Delano, Ca. To Rotterdam, N.Y., just west of that state’s capital city of Albany. Railex also has a shipping facility at Wallula, Wa. that loads produce rail shipments destined for New York state.

The price of fuel came down, but the economy crashed in what has become the nation’s worst economic crisis since the Great Depression. Freight levels continue to drop. The major trucking companies are reporting losses. And one small trucking company official told me that everyone is undercutting each other in rates. Good for shippers if they have anything to ship.

Of course you still see the freeways heavy with truck traffic. But ask any long haul driver lucky enough to be out there with a load and he or she will likely tell you that the wait for a return load once the destination is reached is often long.

While railroad freight, especially intermodel (truck trailers and often double-stacked containers), is down considerably, I notice from the vantage point where I live that the Union Pacific trains are hauling a steady stream of truck trailers and containers (that might otherwise be going up and down the highways).

I just read a recent article that noted that the Norfolk Southern Railroad has received financing from the state of Virginia to help it rebuild its infrastructure, the idea being to unclog the I-81 corridor through the Shenandoah Valley (and I suppose be green by reducing truck traffic too). The state estimated that within 10 to 12 years truck traffic on that stretch could be reduced by 30 percent.

And that same article (possibly planted by the railroad lobby – I don’t know) suggested that with an investment of $500 billion 85 percent of the big truck traffic on the nation’s highways could be eliminated by 2030.

One the one hand, knowing what I know from working in trucking (I am not now) for more than a decade, it is kind of hard to imagine all freight going via rail (save for local delivery), especially with the model of  ” just on-time delivery” that shippers and receivers have worked with for so long.

The whole industry has been used to being able to ship relatively small orders rapidly straight through from shipping door to receiving door and of being able to place shipping orders at the last minute (no need for time-consuming train or ship reservations).

But the pressures of environmental concerns and fuel efficiency and availability is pushing the freight shipping industry toward railroads at the moment. The continued economic decline is raising havoc as well.

I am not at all against trucks. I was a truck driver for some 12 years. Trucks certainly have an edge on speed of delivery. I note that unit train only promises five-day delivery from California to New York state. I don’t know why that is, but I do know that I hauled a load of oranges along with a team driver from Porterville, Ca. to Massachusetts in about two and a half days.

No one can accurately predict the future, but I do think that long haul trucking will not continue the way it has been operating for the past several decades and will likely lose ground for many types of freight.

If the economy were to surge back though it would be interesting to see if the railroads could really handle the volume. They certainly could not at first because the infrastructure is not there. And if the economy was booming they might continue to be more selective and not be so excited to handle such a variety of freight.

P.s.

I feel compelled to note that I first posted this piece on my Tony’s Transport Blog.


When you think you have it bad, you don’t, but others do…

April 20, 2009

Sometimes when things are not going right and the whole world seems to be falling apart around you, what you may not realize is that somewhere else people have it a lot worse. And once you are made aware of that you may feel kind of foolish or small (but maybe not better).

I think such was the case ten years ago, April 20, 1999.

It was a hot day in Los Angeles. That’s the way detective Joe Friday of the old Dragnet show might have put it.

I was a long haul truck driver. Among other things that day, I had a tough time backing in at a super crowded and narrow dock with all kinds of obstacles, such as a fire hydrant. No damage and no one hurt, but it took awhile. And then I had to wait a long time to simply pick up one pallet of organic bananas that had been sitting out on a hot loading dock (they were rejected at the other end). Finally I got out of there (and technically this was in Fullerton, but the whole LA basin, which is virtually all paved over, is all LA to me) but something was wrong. My refrigeration unit on my trailer was not working and I had much more produce to pick up (Oxnard and Salinas, probably, I don’t recall that for sure). So, the powers that be sent me to Vernon (still LA to me) to a refer repair shop. Glad I wasn’t paying the bill. At the time is was $100 just to have them look at it (wonder why your food costs so much?). I was there for a couple of hours at least (I don’t remember what the total bill was, but it was big). They tore apart the whole refer motor, literally. The guy had it in small pieces all neatly laid out. Now the computer built into the unit tells them what is wrong before they do anything. I can read the computer. It said a switch was defective. The switch was on the outside of the unit. When I swung by my home terminal in Northern California later, a refer mechanic there shook his head. He said the job should have taken all of but five minutes (breaking down on the road is costly).

While I was waiting at the LA refer repair place I could not help but think, being a long-haul trucker I was not making any money. I only got paid by the mile.

The customer waiting room was a cubby hole with a ratty chair and a TV set and, as I recall, it did not have air conditioning. It was at least in the high 90s outside. A truck driver was sitting in the chair and seemed to be mesmerized by what was on the television screen. I asked him what it was. He said there was some kind of shooting incident or attack on a high school.

Well of course that turned out to be the infamous Columbine High School shootings at Littleton, Colorado, where two teenage boys went on a rampage and shot 12 of their classmates and one teacher and wounded 23 others.

The thing that stuck out in my mind out of all of that was how long the police waited to go in. I know this ground has been covered by me and others, but that still bothers me. According to the reports I have read it took more than an hour and a half for the police to move in. The perpetrators had already killed themselves sometime before.

Of course had the police rushed in like the Russians do in hostage situations and killed innocent people in the process they would have become the villains.

But there has to be some type of compromise and tactic worked out to save innocent lives. In light of recent incidents, it does not seem that has been worked out.

But the theme of this post is when you think you have it bad, others have it far worse. Certainly in my case what I was going through that day was trivial.

And knowing that someone has it worse than you do may not always make you feel better. I was just making an observation.

P.s.

I just read an article that says there were many myths built up by various news reports. It claimed that there was no evidence that the Columbine murderers were outcasts or that they were picked on at school. It said that actually no one really knows why they did what they did. I have no real idea myself. I can only conclude that the two were psychopaths and did not separate the make believe world of things like video games and and cartoons and TV dramas from real life. Unfortunately on that dark day back in 1999 they made an unbelievable horror come painfully true.


Some inconvenient truths about truck driving…

March 26, 2009

(This is a slightly updated version of a previous blog.)

People out of jobs are going to truck driving school, an article in my local newspaper said. Been there done that. In fact, a newspaper article is what led me to my more than a decade odyssey out on the road.

Things are not as bright out there today – while there has been a big demand for truck drivers for years, with the downturn in the economy freight movement has fallen off sharply.

But I just wanted to get something in here for anyone who might be considering going the truck driving route.

Most of the entry level jobs for big truck driving are in what is called long haul. You need to realize that the rules of employment are different in that field than most others. The normal laws of pay and working conditions do not apply.

Typically, long haul drivers find themselves waiting a lot, far from home, baby sitting a truck, as I call it.  For the most part, as a long haul driver you will only be paid when your wheels are rolling. Long haul pays by the mile, not by the hour or fixed salary. Some companies do pay a little something for layover or even wait time (but usually not total wait time and such pay is usually not much, often not even minimum wage). And layovers can last for several days. I was once laid over for nearly a week, some 2,500 miles from home.

And if you don’t like wait time, I’d advise staying away from hauling refrigerated or temperature controlled freight (such as produce).  I once logged in 40 hours of wait time in one month, not counting sleeper birth or meal breaks. And I was not paid for any of it, as I recall (and if  I was it was only a few dollars).

I would discuss that issue upfront with a prospective employer (they may string you on, though).

Employers often quote cents per mile, but what they either lie about or do not tell you is that you may well not get in enough miles to make a living. It costs the employer very little to let you sit out there at a truck stop, because the employer does not have to pay you. It costs you a lot. When I began truck driving I found that a lot of drivers really were not making any money. They were simply drawing on their pay for subsistence and when it was time to get their paycheck they had little to nothing left. In fact, some of them owed the company.

Now this all sounds kind of negative. But long haul driving conditions, I believe, have improved somewhat since I got into it and got out of it.

(And for those of you who have not read my blog before, I drove truck for more than a decade. I worked in long haul for most of that time. My last job was what you might call short haul LTL (Less than a load) and paid well, but I came down with cancer, and am not able to work now.)

But I just wanted to point out some things folks not familiar with over-the-road trucking need to know. Another thing you might not have thought of is your schedule. No such thing. While some long haul drivers may have dedicated runs (going to the same place each time), most do not. In the course of a week, you will work around the clock; your hours will vary each day. That’s because pickups and deliveries are made at any hour of the day or night.

I won’t go over hours of service and log book rules in total detail, but basically under the current rules, you have 11 hours driving ahead of you before you are required to take a 10-hour break. There’s no limit to the time you can do non-driving work, but once you have reached 14 hours in one tour, you can no longer drive until you have that 10-hour break (remember, you could get to 14 hours with less than 11 hours driving, due to wait times and even loading and unloading, which you might be called upon to do or assist in, and don’t forget mechanical breakdowns and flat tires – they happen).

If you were to drive solo across the United States (and I have done that) you will find that your start and stop times roll around the clock. It would be like working at a factory but doing a different shift each day. Remember, somewhere in there you have to eat and let nature call and maybe even take a shower (maybe).

Under current rules, if you have 34 consecutive hours off, you start a week again with 70 hours available on your log book.

Some companies or dispatchers or your own greed or all three may goad you into cheating on your log book.  Or you might feel compelled to because you notice that the first to get his or her load delivered is often the first to get a reload. Do not do it! You, not anyone else, are liable if caught or anything goes wrong. The most likely scenario besides you falling asleep at the wheel and killing folks is that someone will run into you. If this happens and your log book is not up to date and/or legal, you may well get the blame under the law, no matter who was really at fault.

Then there is loading and unloading. I will say for most of time I did not touch freight. But if you do not touch the freight, you or someone (your employer) will have to pay someone to do it. It is not uncommon for drivers to end up loading and unloading on their own time and not get paid for it.

Finally, there is weather. If you will be driving over the mountains, particularly on the West Coast, you have to be prepared to handle snow chains. If you are not up to that, you have no business on the road, because you will be a danger to yourself and everyone else (there’s no shame in not being up to it, but there is in getting yourself out there and not being up to it).

I only touched the surface of this road. Most of what I wrote was negative. Ironically, I enjoyed the work immensely (although not every minute or day of it). A lot depends upon your employer and yourself and the type of freight you haul. And some feel a sense of independence out there. It certainly is not like most jobs. You are not highly supervised.

And in this time of high unemployment to have any job has become a status symbol. Just ask any unemployed investment banker (right after you ask him what the hell he did with that bonus check paid by your taxes).

Oh, and one more thing, long haul is not for anyone who wants a home life (that’s why I did not enjoy it all the time). I don’t care what employers promise you, from my experience, long haul drivers have no home life. I have heard many a long haul driver lament: “I didn’t get to see my kids grow up”.

Good luck!

(Copyright 2009)


USA’s main security threat may be Mexico and there are valid reasons to keep their trucks out…

March 25, 2009

While we are still fighting wars in the Middle East for somewhat nebulous reasons and no clear idea of our goals, the nation on our own southern border, Mexico, is in the midst of what might as well be called a civil war, with 7,000 deaths in the last 16 months, including high officials in its federal government, as well as town mayors and police chiefs, some of whom have sought political asylum in the U.S.

The Obama administration has announced a kind of token response on the border, but as I understand it, they are pulling immigration personnel from out of our interior to do so, conveniently letting the enforcement of the hiring of illegals slide as a sop to those who for some strange reason support the underground economy of illegal aliens, many of whom come from Spanish speaking nations to the south, most notably Mexico.

While some of the illegal migrants have gone back south because of the higher unemployment numbers in the USA, they face a problem in their homeland because their government is still corrupt after all these years, but it is trying to fight off drug lords, some of whom employ paramilitary against the Mexican soldiers and police.

Meanwhile, the violence is spilling across the border and is reaching into our northern cities, such as Chicago. Much of it involves illegals fighting over drug disputes, but sometimes hapless illegals, maybe not involved in the drug trade, get caught in the crossfire or become victims of kidnapings and ransom schemes, another popular line of work for criminals south of the border.

Mixed in with all this somehow is an ongoing dispute between Mexico and the United States over a North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) program to allow a limited number of Mexican trucks to be able to cross the border and have a run of our country. Congress cancelled funding for the program recently, but the Obama administration has indicated it might resume the program in the future.

In retaliation, Mexico, one of our top trading partners, has applied tariffs on 90 U.S. products. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is in Mexico to smooth things over in the dispute and to promise the President Felipe Calderon administration there that the U.S. will help it in its fight against the drug cartels. And amidst all this, a Mexican defense official has warned the U.S. against any military incursions into his country (ala the Mexican-American War of the 1840s and the chase after Pancho Villa in the 1920s, I would suppose).

The truck program was cancelled in part supposedly over safety concerns, but probably also because the Teamster’s Union, a supporter of Democrats, was worried about the loss of American jobs.

Now before you go thinking I think this was a bad thing, think again. I was a trucker and as things stand I don’t think Mexican trucks should be allowed past our border. And I know something – not everything – about this subject, because as I said I was a trucker (and never a Teamster member) and furthermore I dealt with the border trucking scenario and know the landscape (my experience was at Nogales, Az. and Otay Mesa, Ca., and San Diego, Ca.).

Now first you need to know that our northern neighbor Canada runs its trucks throughout the U.S.

But the Canada/U.S. situation is nothing like what we face with Mexico.

A U.S. trucker can cross the border into Canada and go just about anywhere.

On the other hand, American trucks do not cross into Mexico and who would want to?

Canada is a civilized nation with the rule of law (probably more so than the USA, in some respects).

Mexico is highly corrupt (despite the efforts to clean things up by Calderon) with the bribes and intimidation as a standard operating procedure in business and law enforcement and everyday life there.

I once talked to a Mexican trucker and he told me that when he drove in his country there were no truck scales. But a policeman might stop a truck out on a lonely stretch of highway and decide supposedly by eyeballing a truck that it was overloaded and assess the fine and pocket it on the spot.

Who in their right mind would take their truck south of the border?

And working down on the border where my loads were transloaded into Mexican rigs, I got to see some of the wrecks they run up and down the highway. While not all USA trucks are up to par, many of the trucks the Mexicans use would not pass the same inspections USA trucks are given.

While they were running the pilot program allowing Mexican trucks in, I believe I saw some pretty questionable rigs running up and down our highways. I do not believe that these trucks were subjected to the same standards as USA trucks, probably due to political considerations.

Another problem is that while Canadian truckers speak English (and yes I know some of them speak French too), many of the Mexican truckers do not (they can’t even read our road signs).

(In the interests of fair play and full disclosure, I should note that some USA-licensed drivers, some of them from Eastern Europe, do not speak English. I actually watched one of these guys at a warehouse once and the freight receivers could not communicate with him. They had to make hand signals and lead him around and show him what to do with his paper work.)

And you have to understand that once you let an over-the-road truck over the border, it goes all over. It may deliver its original load into the country from Mexico at one place, but then haul other loads within the country between cities and only return to Mexico after hauling several loads.

If Mexico had actual law and order and was not corrupt, and if their truck safety standards and practices were better, it might well have a valid argument that its trucks should be allowed into our country and in turn we could also operate in Mexico.

It is unfortunate to have a dispute with Mexico because it is one of our top trading partners, but realities have to be accepted.

And back to the turmoil in Mexico. I don’t know why it has been downplayed. It threatens Mexico and it also threatens our own security.

Part of the problem is that the U.S. offers such a good market for the south-of-the-border drug cartels. Personal guns are illegal in Mexico, so guns from the U.S., to include high powered assault rifles and other powerful weapons, are basically traded from the north for the drugs from the south.

Combating the drug trade is a tough problem that we have not ever solved in the USA. I find calls to simply “legalize” illicit drugs to be dubious at best (and that was not some kind of marijuana pun – doobie is it?).

But meanwhile I don’t think we should tolerate cross border incursions, be they illegal aliens looking for work or engaged in the drug trade.

We need a military show of force at the border, as well as  a strong commitment of the various appropriate law enforcement agencies where needed to fight the drug cartels. And we should not let up on our enforcement of immigration laws at the workplace in the process.

We may well find that the biggest threat to our security is not in the rugged terrain of Afghanistan or the deserts and urban areas of Iraq but instead at our own southern doorstep.

In the long run we need to work hand in hand with the Calderon administration in Mexico, which from all reports is doing its best to fight both the drug cartels and to turn the tide on corruption that has existed so long in Mexico.

(Copyright 2009)


Take a long look before going long haul…

February 9, 2009

(Copyright 2009)

People out of jobs or fearing they soon might be are going to truck driving school, an article in my local newspaper said. Been there done that. In fact, a newspaper article is what led me to my more than a decade odyssey out on the road.

Things are not as bright out there today – while there has been a big demand for truck drivers for years, with the downturn in the economy freight movement has fallen off sharply.

But I just wanted to get something in here for anyone who might be considering going the truck driving route.

Most of the entry level jobs for big truck driving are in what is called long haul. You need to realize that the rules of employment are different in that field than most others. The normal laws of pay and working conditions do not apply.

Typically, long haul drivers find themselves waiting a lot, far from home, baby sitting a truck, as I call it. It’s officially or in truck driver parlance called “layover”. For the most part, as a long haul driver you will only be paid when your wheels are moving. Long haul pays by the mile, not by the hour, or fixed salary. Some companies do pay a little something for layover, but often not for the first night. And your layover can last for several days. I was once laid over for nearly a week, some 2,500 miles from home.

Employers often quote cents per mile, but what they either lie about or do not tell you is that you may well not get in enough miles to make a living. It costs the employer very little to let you sit out there at a truck stop, because the employer does not have to pay you. It costs you a lot. When I began truck driving, I found that a lot of drivers really were not making any money. They were simply drawing on their pay for subsistence and when it was time to get their paycheck they had little to nothing left. In fact, some of them owed the company.

Now this all sounds kind of negative. But long haul driving conditions, I believe, have improved somewhat since I got into it.

(And for those of you who have not read my blog before, I drove truck for more than a decade. I worked in long haul for most of that time. My last job was what you might call short haul and paid well, but I came down with cancer, and am not able to work now.)

But I just wanted to point out some things folks not familiar with over-the-road trucking need to know. Another thing you might not have thought of is your schedule. No such thing. While some long haul drivers may have dedicated runs (going to the same place each time), most do not. In the course of a week, you will work around the clock; your hours will vary each day. That’s because pickups and deliveries are made at any hour of the day or night.

I was going to give you an example, using federal hours of service rules, but frankly I don’t remember all of them, and few people completely understand them or their interpretation, including truck drivers and the police.

However, basically, under the current rules, you have 11 hours driving ahead of you before you are required to take a 10-hour break. There’s no limit to the time you can do non-driving work, but once you have reached 14 hours in one tour, you can no longer drive until you have that 10-hour break (remember, you could get to 14 hours with less than 11 hours driving, due to wait times and even loading and unloading, which you might be called upon to do or assist in, and don’t forget mechanical breakdowns and flat tires – they happen).

The 14-hour rule is relatively new. It used to be drivers could by working their log book stretch out their allowable driving hours over days. But at any rate, you’re looking at 14-hour days. If you were to drive solo across the United States (and I have done that) you will find that your start and stop times roll around the clock. It would be like working at a factory but doing a different shift each day. Remember, somewhere in there you have to eat and let nature call and maybe even take a shower (maybe).

Then there is loading and unloading. I will say for most of time I did not touch freight. But if you do not touch the freight, you or someone (your employer) will have to pay someone to do it. It is not uncommon for drivers to end up loading and unloading on their own time and not get paid for it.

Finally, there is weather. If you will be driving over the mountains, particularly on the West Coast, you have to be prepared to handle snow chains. If you are not up to that, you have no business on the road, because you will be a danger to yourself and everyone else (there’s no shame in not being up to it, but there is in getting yourself out there and not being up to it).

I only touched the surface of this road. Most of it was negative. Ironically, I enjoyed the work immensely (although not every minute or day of it). A lot depends upon your employer and yourself and the type of freight you haul.

Oh, and one more thing, long haul is not for anyone who wants a home life (that’s why I did not enjoy it all the time). I don’t care what employers promise you, from my experience, long haul drivers have no home life. I have heard many a long haul driver lament: “I didn’t get to see my kids grow up”.

Good luck!