Shunters don’t get enough respect in my opinion, and it’s probably the most important position in the supply chain of a busy hub or distribution centre. And, too often, it’s the rookies that get “shunted” into hydraulics with little or no experience.
This is called Baptism by Fire, and it’s a reasonable strategy. But it’s a good thing those trucks are tough or they’d implode with some of the abuses foisted on them. Purolator has some Capacitys almost ten years old that work a regular shift. And I’ve heard of other companies running shunt trucks 6,000 hours a year—that’s 20 hours per day! Really, if the engine doesn’t die, a shunt truck can live a long and prosperous life, as can the driver.
But difficulties can arise that are challenging to even experienced drivers, i.e like running under the king pin, and getting out from behind that king pin, spinning in the snow.
So the theory is that these neophyte drivers will earn their stripes on the battlefield. This is literally true because they’re flying solo with each drop and hook. But you’ve got to come away from a shift at a frenetically-paced yard with some degree of self-esteem having given your all to make the night work out right, trailers in the doors at precisely the right time, and the yard set up square and tight.
Some of those newbies end up liking the job; I know drivers who have started as shunters and have done nothing else since….and other drivers who choose shunting as a vocation because they like the precision, the pace, the predictable hours, and they particularly don’t want to go on the road and fight with traffic, unless it’s running to Tim’s for coffees for the other drivers. There is some measure of control in shunting, and satisfaction when things go right.
So here’s to the professional shunters, who’ve driven those mules backwards more miles than any of us could imagine. I’m not saying don’t start the rookies off shunting, just keep them out of the way for the first few weeks. It’s a great way to learn how to drive truck, but that shouldn’t diminish our appreciation of great shunters and the job they do daily. A good shunter is on top of moves before they happen, aware of the location of the trailers in the yard, especially the “hot” ones, and what the brokers are doing. Watch a good shunter working, it’s a treat.
Wouldn’t it be a good idea to have a shunt competition some time? It could be sponsored by one or all of the shunt mfgs. Get out some plastic cones and plot some patterns that get progressively more difficult. Some shunt men (and women) are absolute wizards in spotting trailers. I’d include side door docks (rarely seen these days, but we actually practised this stuff when I got my licence last century at George Brown College, down by the ports off Cherry Street)..
Heck, a shunt competition could be a lot of fun. Various categories including accuracy trials, time trials, yard set up trials, obstacle course etc….I was talking about this with John Uppington of Ottawa and he agreed this would be a good idea. Maybe next year.
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. All posts by Harry Rudolfs