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