conjectures from the side of the road

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You heard it here. I’m calling the recession over, trucking-wise, at least. Volumes appear to be up everywhere and companies are hiring drivers again. I’m not too worried about a double dip…we been down so long it looks like up to me. But before we inhale the fragrant winds of prosperity that are soon to blow over the arid landscapes from Surrey to Etobicoke, Laval to Dartmouth, Brandon to Cornerbrook, Yellowknife to Megantic, we’re going to be smarter with our sheckles and zlotys this time, right? Admittedly it’s still slow though. I just talked to one guy who had to wait 7 days for a backhaul out of Kansas, until he finally found one in Oklahoma that got him back to Ontario.
Got to drive a 2009 ProStar last week and really liked it. It came with an Eaton Yale ten speed Autoshift which made me realize how profoundly good these automatics are getting. Only 50Ks on this unit but the drive train was wholly responsive backing up, not much lag time or slippage and a lot less free roll when hooking or stopped on a grade, unlike the last generation of sloppy automatics.
This truck’s on a regular run between Toronto and Val D’Or, Que., and the full moon nights were spectacular and the ideal weather made for sublime driving conditions: April Fools and fat moths hatching in the conifers and splattering into the windshield this early in the year, ravens.and crows making a stand on the highway And highway 101 hasn’t heaved too bad from Notre Dame du Nord to where it joins with 117. So nice to be driving without much traffic through the hills around Marten River and Temagami, and the full moon just made the experience richer, like a divine light illuminating this astonishingly beautiful country of ours.
I rarely get up to Val D’Or these days as I’m a relief driver bidding weekly on the slots as they come up. Accommodation in a classic hotel—the Continental—which contains the ghosts of prospectors (the town’s name means “gold mine”), as well as groups of young Cree hockey players running in the halls (Val D’Or is host to the world’s largest kids’ aboriginal hockey tournament in the world, and it seems scheduled every time I get to town).
Not much sleep for me, but the town was coming alive in the warm weather. That’s a sign of a healthy community when a cross-section of the populace is milling about on the sidewalks and the doorways. Just one long main street that contains 25 taverns (most are country and western oriented) and five barber shops. And the economy is rebounding too. Forestry is still in the toilet but the zinc and gold mines are ramping up and the sense of optimism is palpable.
offering coffee and comfort to famous Polish Canadian Avro Arrow test pilot in Barry’s Bay
But maybe I should write about the schizophrenic nature of the contemporary trucker. The old order of the mashed potato farmboys and their self-important unquestioned racial pedigree is being challenged by other ethnicities and truckers of different skin tones causing untold trauma on channel 19. Yes there are bad drivers among new Canadians, as there are among those who can claim generations of British Isles and European descent. Bring on the driver shortage, I say, and we’ll all eventually learn to work together.
People of the Valley: Back to the Lander father and son team at Morning Glory Farm somewhere near Killaloe
And what about that Michigan militia that was planning to kill police officers so they could foment a revolution? The whacky right is just as bizarre as the militant “new left” of the 60s and 70s that had a similar mindset. This is the politics of intolerance and rebellion that’s bulwarked by the angry talk show hosts that flood the airwaves-the Rush Limbaughs and Bill O’Reillys that are legion, yelling and stamping their feet on the Fox radio network nightly like spoiled children. And their Tea Party followers who have nothing to offer except negativity and absurdity. The paradox is that the country with the most personal freedom is a Petri dish for fringe groups that will stop at nothing to bring down the world’s most important democracy for their own selfish neo-conservative ends. There’s another militia in Michigan that is training to stop an invasion from Canada—no kidding. Yeah, look out, we’re coming to get you with our socialized health care and used trucks.
Lastly, I was going to write about the myth of the logistics industry which is really nothing much more than a pseudo-science couched in jargon and obfuscation–a back-slapping coterie of logistics specialists who reproduce themselves geometrically. It’s not all bullshit but some of it certainly is. Logistics is the science of moving goods in the most efficient manner possible between point A and B , and it’s nothing that our benefactors weren’t doing all along without the aid of fancy software. I’m reminded of scholar Hugh Kenner from Harvard telling me that his grandfather was stationmaster of the C&O railyard in St. Thomas, Ont., and the fact that he had to keep the entire yard set up in his head all day. He’d know what rolling units were going out when, and where they were dropped. Without relying on computer programs he was able to plot the day’s moves and set up trains using the least energy without making redundant moves, not unlike what a good dispatcher or yard man does today. And what do you do when the computer crashes? Write it down and call the IT person? Like I said, I’d like to write about the myth of the logistics industry but I better know what I’m talking about before I do so.
Yours Truly at the Val D’Or depot docks: Another big load of potatoes!

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Harry Rudolfs has worked as a dishwasher, apprentice mechanic, editor, trucker, foreign correspondent and taxi driver. He's written hundreds of articles for North American and European journals and newspapers, including features for the Ottawa Citizen, Toronto Life and CBC radio.

With over 30 years experience in the trucking industry he's hauled cars, steel, lumber, chemicals, auto parts and general freight as well as B-trains. He holds an honours BA in creative writing and humanities, summa cum laude.

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  • I used to run Toronto to Val D’Or ( I thought the name meant Valley of Gold) a couple of times a week. Haven’t done it in almost 4 years now. It was always a beautiful ride through God’s country, even (especially) in winter. All those little Quebec towns covered in snow and Christmas lights always made me think that this is the ‘real’ Canada, not southern Ontario, certainly not the ‘centre of the universe.’ Liked the pictures from Barry’s Bay / Killaloe area as well. I did ltl up that way many years ago, & more recently hauled lumber from that area. Always admired the big church in Wilno, and wondered why they ever built such a huge building in such a small town. The view from the parking lot is fantastic, especially in the fall.
    BTW, I have been thinking about buying a ProStar & getting back into it, are they really that good? Maybe you can talk the powers-that-be into letting you do a full and proper road test for the magazine.
    If you want help understanding the logistics industry, just think of it this way: Logistics is to trucking as Starbucks is to Timmies. Just a way to dazzle the customer with fancy language to try and justify a higher price.
    Keep up the good work Harry. It’s appreciated.

  • Love your article,man. I love the pictures and have been in those places. What you say is also dead on!!
    Paul L.

  • Hey thanks for the kind comments yous guys. jimh, I love your phrase “All those little Quebec towns all covered in snow and Christmas lights made me think this is the ‘real’ Canada, not southern Ontario” with its sprawling suburbs and box store malls, I might add. I mean, have you seen Milton lately? Idyllically set beside the spectacular escarpment, and now the sheep farms are Wall Marts and Best Buys and the houses are stamped from four different designs with sprawling streets and plazas upon plazas. The catch is, they don’t have on-street parking in Milton, people move into the three story mini-mansions and get continuously dinged for parking for more than three hours as the green hornets come around and chalk the wheels, so the denizens are forced to rouse themselves every 2 hours and 55 minutes and shuffle their Hondas and Toyotas around the block–but I digress.
    Barry’s Bay has two big churches, one Irish RC and one Polish RC…the one on the hill outside of Wilno is Polish I think, yes amazing view. My friend had an old wooden cross on the corner near his farm and it’s recently been rebuilt. It was put there in case the Polish farmers couldn’t get to church on Sunday, they could just go to the cross roads. Incidently, one of the best jams anywhere in the world occurs Tuesday nights in that pub in Wilno..some of the best musicians in the Ottawa Valley drive miles to sit in.
    This Prostar is much better than the one I tried a couple of years ago. Quieter and more solid..Yes, I think Truck News should provide more trucks for me to test drive. I’d like to try the Prostar at Notre Dame du Nord, uphill with a load. I’m still waiting to take a Lonestar for a spin.
    Lastly I was rather harsh with the logistics industry without backing up my wild statements. But I still think it’s only another moniker for what’s been going on for at least 150 years in Canada. William Hendrie was the first 3PL specialist when he arranged to handle all the cartage for the Grand Trunk Railway (later CN) in Toronto in 1858 I believe. In exchange for all the drayage, Hendrie provided delivery and warehousing services and collected the charges. Hendrie and his partner had a virtual monopoly from Detroit to Montreal and Buffalo, running all the freight sheds and subcontracting the work. The railway didn’t have to worry about delivering or picking up freight and Hendrie’s fee came out of the freight charges. Logistics, of course came out of world war 2 and it really is a science. Just think about what the logistics specialist from from Doctors Without Borders has to go through to get supplies and an operating theatre established in some remote war zone, i.e. where to source the product and how to get them to the front lines the cheapest and quickest way possible.
    And lord knows many of the logistics graduates know how the difference between TL and LTL, know how to fill out customs documents, and how to source lowest cost transport modes. But the question remains, is a person better off to have hands on experience in the trucking field, or should they be a graduate of logistics programs? Probably some of both would be good. But for some companies, logistics merely means creating a new division and spelling it with an “X”, as in LOGISTIX division, how can I help you?

  • Jim H: Here’s a review Harry wrote about the ProStar in 07. (Harry, I hope you don’t mind me reposting it). Of course, the truck has evolved since then and it’s no longer produced in Chatham, but I’m sure much of Harry’s insight still applies.
    The 2007 ProStar
    Almost Nirvana on wheels
    How can you tell if you’re driving a great truck? It feels like it’s not there. Literally, you feel at ease inside the shell and never have to fight the controls, or even pay much attention to them. The switches are an extension of your fingertips. The interior of the cab dissolves as you glide down the road listening to MP3s, on the lookout for those sleepy-headed, cellphone-addicted or nervous motorists.
    My friend Bob Wilson gave up the keys for a week so I could try his International ProStar on a five-day linehaul run between Ottawa and Toronto (suggestion to OEMs, send me more trucks to test drive!)
    It looks like a cross between the 8600 and 9200. Big smiling bumper face and Aero cap. The same combed-back grille as the 8600 regional tractor, while the cab interior is more derivative of the 9200.
    What’s different is under the bonnet. The one I drove was fitted with the ISX 385-horse engine, certainly enough power for the gentle hills of the Canadian Shield, speed limiting aside.
    This motor is Cummins answer to the stringent 2007 EPA regulations. Recirculated exhaust gases are pumped back into the turbo making the engine especially responsive at low speeds. Periodically, the soot is burned away with a high-temperature bake-off (1,000 degrees F). The muffler stack, itself, is expensive to replace and comes with four sensors and a catalytic converter.
    Seeing the ‘Made in Canada’ sticker made me smile: the ProStar series are assembled in Chatham, Ont. and come in four models: basic, limited, premium and premium Eagle. My ride was a daycab, probably the no-frills package.
    Right off the bat, I noticed the suspension of the ProStar is much superior to any of its 9000-series predecessors. It can handle a take-out coffee. And if you’re passing through Toronto you can take the Gardiner “wild mouse” challenge yourself: stay in the inside lane going westbound past the Humber River. It’s like a mechanical bull ride with most tractors, but the ProStar (albeit with only 30,000 kms and still tightly strung) smoothed out the violent pitching and yawing. “Bob-tailing is like driving a car,” adds my colleague, Wilson.
    And finally an automatic I can live with. I don’t know what those Eaton Fuller pixies have done with their ultra-shift 10-speed automated transmission but there’s a world of difference between this model and the earlier ones in the 8600s. No lag or pesky back pushing, and easier coupling without draining all the air while two-footing under a parked trailer.
    The shifting console is in a better place, located low in the wrap-around console. Much improved from the post-mounted shifter on earlier models with its bright green LED screens reflecting off the windshield.
    Finger tip controls are another big driver comfort feature. With a touch of the steering pad, you can dim the headlights and markers, bleat the air horn, set the cruise control, and make adjustments to the stereo.
    That’s a great radio, by the way, what International calls part of its “premium sound system.” It did a terrific job tuning in Coast to Coast with George Noory on the AM band in the wee hours. Truck drivers need to stay appraised of the latest in alien abductions, crop circles, ghostly occurrences, and conspiracy theories.
    Other driver-friendly features include a revamped HVAC system. On the hottest day in Toronto this summer, the AC was colder than an ice box and didn’t need much adjustment between stops and starts and highway driving. There’s no way to test the defroster, of course, but the smaller windshield and better circulation should make problems with icing on the earlier 9200s a thing of the past.
    With 3.73 rear ends, my ProStar put out 1,425 RPM at 100 km/h, achieving 37 litres per 100 km, or about 7.6 mpg. It also ran much quieter than the 8600 or 9200s, although the clutch fan clicked in frequently in the lower gears. And the ProStar’s aerodynamic lines appear to have eliminated much of the luffing and buffeting you receive from following another truck’s turbulence.
    This test model was also equipped with a premium air ride seat manufactured by National. It has no less than seven pneumatic button controls to adjust weight and lumbar settings. One button actually wraps the seat sides around your torso. It also comes with a “back cycler” option which provides an interesting sensation to the small of your back by pulsing the lower seatback section (although it may not be enough to keep the drivers out of the massage parlours in Vaughan, Ont.)
    Good seating is crucial for drivers since we spend most of our time sitting behind the wheel. Both previous drivers of this unit cited problems with this seat: stress on the back of the legs among other things. For my part, I noticed some twitches in my back after the first night. Mostly, I think, because the inflated side flaps straightened out my chronic slouch. For the rest of the week my back felt fine.
    Personal space is another issue that’s important to truckers.
    “For years, truck manufacturers have been coming around and asking us what we want in a tractor,” says Wilson. “And we tell them more leg room and more inside space. Instead, we seem to be getting less leg room and our coolers are getting farther away from us.”
    An engineer in Chatham, Ont. assured me that the ProStar has slightly more leg room than the 9200, not much but a little (28.4″ as compared to 27.7″).
    And Wilson is correct when he says there’s no room for the cooler beside the seat – the doghouse and wrap-around console don’t offer much space between them. Perhaps someone can design a special cooler that fits in that slot or straddles the dog house.
    Visibility is great in the ProStar, and the fender-mounted mirrors seem to cover all the blind spots (no reason for those floppy overhead mirrors). I also like the layout of the instrumentation which is classic Binder-esque. The gauges are basic and simple. The dashboard looks more like a Piper Cub than a 747.
    I really enjoyed my week in the ProStar and was sad to go back to the 9200. International’s 2007 ProStar isn’t quite Nirvana-on-wheels, but it comes pretty close.

  • Some buyers like to wait a couple of years after a new model is introduced, in which case the timing is right for a look at the ProStar…The 2009 seemed a more solid ride and a better insulated cab. I also thought the Eaton Yale Auto-shift transmission was superior in many ways to the Ultra-shift that I had in the 2007 model.

  • Thanks for re-posting that road test James. I will be going to Truck World on Fri. & will get a good look at one there.
    Thank you as well, Harry for the reply. One other thing I noticed about the Abitibi region of Quebec was how much more lively and prosperous it seemed compared to the “equivalent” towns in Ontario, such as Timmins or Kirkland Lake. I can recall driving through Malartic on a beautiful evening in the early spring and it seemed that half the town was out enjoying the first of the nice weather.
    I live just west of Cambridge, I know what you are saying about Milton. Beautiful spot until “civilization” took over. Hamilton, home of the world’s flattest mountain, is another spot on the Niagara Escarpment that must have been beautiful say 200 years ago.